Engage students’ interest with these digital curriculum tools from SAS inSchool

SAS inSchool, the education division of Cary, N.C.-based SAS Institute, has added new digital curriculum tools to its teacher planning product Curriculum Pathways, which is geared toward students and teachers in grades eight to 12.

The new Student InterActivities for English literature and modern European history offer interactive lessons that combine audio, images, and video. For example, the English Literature InterActivities intertwine literary passages with audiovisual files to teach literature topics such as Old English, Middle English, Renaissance, Shakespeare, and more. Students have a space to write their own interpretations, and they can scroll over words to learn their definitions.

Modern European History InterActivities are available for topics such as Renaissance and the Reformation, Exploration and Colonization, Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and more. Students view short movies on the people, issues, and events related to a key historical question, then using an online organizational tool they review primary-source documents and audio clips, save passages that support either side of the question, and develop their own analysis.

The new content also features additional teacher planning materials for physical science, including lessons about changes in matter, electricity, energy, forces, motion, waves, and more. All materials are linked to state and national standards through Curriculum Pathways, a teacher planning environment with resources for English, mathematics, science, social studies, and Spanish. A subscription to Curriculum Pathways costs $2.50 per student, per year.

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Adobe’s new Creative Suite is a sweet deal for schools

Publishing and graphic design software maker Adobe Systems has introduced a complete package of its products at a price that’s very attractive for schools.

The new Adobe Creative Suite boasts upgraded versions of four Adobe software titles, plus two other programs and a design guide, all for just $399 for educators. The suite, which normally sells for $1,229, includes the latest versions of Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and GoLive, as well as Acrobat 6.0 Professional, a design guide, and a new program called Version Cue.

The tools in this package are integrated as never before, Adobe says, making it easier than ever to move files between applications or people. Although this functionality is most advantageous for magazines and ad agencies, Adobe says yearbook committees and graphic design classes also will benefit. Version Cue, the tool that enables this seamless file transferal among programs, is only available in the Adobe Creative Suite. Version Cue also keeps track of every file iteration, allowing individuals or members of working groups to access the various versions easily.

All titles feature enhancements. For example, Photoshop has improved file management capabilities, and Illustrator has enhanced support of three-dimensional images.

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Penn State launches ‘free’ digital music service for students

In an apparent campus first aimed at undercutting the music file-swapping craze, Penn State University will offer students free digital music from the newly relaunched Napster service, university officials said Nov. 6. The service provides music for listening and limited downloading.

However, if students want to keep a song or burn it to a CD, they will need to pay 99 cents per song.

Napster’s collection of some 500,000 songs will be available in January to some 18,000 students living in residence halls on several Penn State campuses, including the main University Park campus. Next fall, the service will be available to all 83,000 students throughout the university system. In addition, Penn State faculty, staff, and alumni will be offered discounted Napster 2.0 memberships.

Students won’t be charged directly for the basic service. Instead, Penn State will use part of the $160 technology fee students pay each semester to fund the program.

The university’s goal is to give students the music options they need for free, eliminating the incentive to use peer-to-peer file-sharing sites, Napster president Mike Bebel said.

Besides draining the bandwidth of school computer networks, illegal file sharing has made students the target of lawsuits by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Faced with a growing number of subpoenas and cease-and-desist letters, many schools are looking for legal alternatives for their students.

Ian Rosenberger, president of the Undergraduate Student Government at Penn State, said six students have been testing the service.

“To this point they’ve been pretty thrilled,” Rosenberger said. “There’s kind of an all-encompassing effect that some of the illegal services don’t have that the students really liked.”

Rosenberger said students will be able to stream music at no cost. They will also be able to download a song and move it to a digital music player for a brief period of time for free, he said.

He conceded that some students will probably balk at having to pay for permanent downloads, but said many will be satisfied with being able to move songs to portable music players.

“I’m really excited about the whole thing, and I’m really interested to see how the students like it,” he said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of different student voices on the whole thing, so we’ll get an interesting perspective in the next few months.”

“When I went to search all the different songs that I like, it was very rare that anything wasn’t there that I wanted,” said Julie Vastyan, one of the six students who tested the service. “In my opinion, I think it’s a great program. I think the positives far outweigh the negatives.”

For some students, though, those negatives–specifically, the fee for regular downloads–are substantial.

“It sounds OK, but when I download a song I don’t want to be limited,” said Kristen Marks, a sophomore from Maryland who said she often downloads music free of charge from Kazaa and other peer-to-peer file-sharing sites. “I definitely don’t want to pay a dollar a song.”

Some students who were put off by the recording industry’s lawsuits object to the service out of principle.

“I feel like I’m paying the RIAA,” Chad Lindell, a senior at Penn State’s campus in Erie, Pa., told the Los Angeles Times.

University President Graham B. Spanier co-chairs the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities with Cary Sherman, head of the RIAA. The committee was formed to find ways to curb illegal music swapping on college campuses.

The committee said earlier it was exploring ways that universities could provide free or discounted music to students as a way to eliminate illegal song sharing through university computer networks.

“[Spanier] is a real leader in this, and he’s talked in the past about ways to do this,” said Josh Bernoff, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. “By doing this, they manage to not only potentially block piracy but remove the reason why anyone would want to do it.”

He said he knows of no other university using such a strategy to combat piracy but expects other schools to follow suit.

In late October, two MIT students who developed a system to give students in university dorms legal access to thousands of songs over the school’s cable television network were shut down by the university because of concerns the service was not licensed.

The students said they had negotiated rights for Seattle-based Loudeye to sell MP3s for the system, but the Harry Fox Agency, which handles mechanical licenses for the National Music Publishers Association, said no licenses had been granted to either MIT or Loudeye. (See “Update: MIT shuts down alternative file-swapping network,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4757.)

Software maker Roxio Inc. launched Napster 2.0 on Oct. 29. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company acquired the Napster brand from the ashes of the free pioneer file-swapping service, which was forced to shut down in 2001 after a protracted legal battle with recording companies.

Napster 2.0 users have access to more than half a million songs from all the major music labels. They can download individual songs for 99 cents and albums for $9.95. The service also offers access to unlimited downloads and streaming for $9.95 per month.

Spanier would not say how much the university will pay for the service, nor how long the contract would run. He did say that, to his knowledge, Penn State is the first university to make such an arrangement.

Links:

Penn State University
http://www.psu.edu

Napster 2.0
http://www.napster.com

Recording Industry Association of America
http://www.riaa.org

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ALA: New exemptions to digital copyright law don’t go far enough

New exemptions to the nation’s stringent digital copyright law will allow people to circumvent, without penalty, the technologies that prevent them from accessing certain types of copyright-protected materials–such as an internet filtering company’s list of blocked web sites or the read-aloud feature in electronic books.

Although education advocates applaud these exemptions, most of them are disappointed the Library of Congress did not enact more widespread exemptions for fair use by educators and librarians across all categories of digital works, as proposed during a recent solicitation of public comments on the issue.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) requires the Library of Congress’s Copyright Office to examine every three years whether individuals are “adversely affected” by the technologies, or “access controls,” installed on copyright-protected digital works.

Normally, the DCMA prohibits people from circumventing access controls used by copyright owners to protect their works. But some limited exemptions–as defined every three years by the Copyright Office–are allowed when individuals can prove they are “adversely affected” by the access controls when trying to make “non-infringing” use of copyright-protected work.

Two old and two new exemptions–now in effect from Oct. 28, 2003 until Oct. 27, 2006–were approved by Librarian of Congress James Billington after a recent rule-making process during which 338 organizations and individuals submitted comments.

Exemptions were made for the following four classes of works:

  • Lists of web sites blocked by internet filters;

  • Computer software that uses malfunctioning, obsolete, or unrepairable “dongles” (exterior key-like devices that are inserted into a computer to gain access to a program);

  • Computer software and games that have become obsolete and require the original hardware to access them; and

  • eBooks with disabled read-aloud functions that prevent blind or visually impaired persons from accessing them.

“[The first] two of these classes of works are very similar to the two classes of works that were exempted three years ago, but they have been modified to take into account the somewhat different cases that were presented … this year,” Billington said. The latter two exemptions are new as a result of this rule-making.

Critics of internet filtering software had argued for a renewal of the exemption that would allow researchers to crack companies’ lists of blocked web sites to evaluate these sites and expose what detractors claim is the software’s propensity to “overblock” sites.

“Unless you have the ability to circumvent the technology protection measures, you don’t even know what’s being blocked. You need to go behind the technology to know what’s blocked,” said Emily Sheketoff, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Library Association (ALA).

Filtering companies consider their block lists to be proprietary information and therefore treat them as closely guarded secrets. They argue that customers can determine what is on the lists by using the software to test various web site addresses.

“While providers of filtering software offer some information about the web sites their software blocks, it is too limited to permit comprehensive or meaningful analysis,” Billington concluded in his ruling. “Persons wishing to review, comment on, and criticize this software as part of an ongoing debate on a matter of public interest should be permitted to gain access to the complete lists of blocked web sites.”

However, this exemption does not apply to lists of internet locations blocked by firewalls, antivirus software, or spam-blocking software, Billington ruled.

David Burt, a spokesman for Secure Computing Corp., testified against the block-list exemption earlier this year. Secure Computing recently acquired N2H2, a leading supplier of filtering software to K-12 schools.

“I’m disappointed that [the Copyright Office] didn’t sympathize with our argument,” Burt said. “I thought we made a good argument that there is no need to do this.”

Even with this exemption in place, it will be difficult for someone to gain access to a filtering company’s block list. “We still feel we have a great deal of legal protection,” Burt explained.

First, users would have to prove they were “adversely affected” by not having access to the blocked list. Then, they would have to figure out how to circumvent the access control. They also must accept the filter’s licensing agreement–which generally specifies that users will not try to circumvent the product’s access controls–before they can install the software.

Another DMCA exemption with a direct bearing on schools and libraries now allows users to circumvent the access controls on books published in electronic format to activate the “read-aloud” function built into eBook reader software. Education advocates had argued for this exemption to give visually impaired users meaningful access to literary works distributed in eBook format.

“By using digital rights management tools … publishers of eBooks can disable the read-aloud function of an eBook and may prevent access to a work in eBook form by means of screen reader software,” Billington wrote. “A publisher may avoid subjecting any of its works to this exemption simply by ensuring that for each of its works published in eBook form, an edition exists which is accessible to the blind and visually impaired.”

Although the ALA was pleased with these exemptions, the group said it was disappointed that an exemption for “fair use” by schools and libraries across all classes of digital works was not included.

Such an exemption would allow teachers to circumvent the access controls on commercially available digital video discs (DVDs) to make copies for classroom use, for example.

“We contend that … our population is as well-educated [as it is] because of fair use for education,” Sheketoff said. “By restricting this information and restricting how we can [use it in digital format], we are setting ourselves back.”

In his ruling, Billings explained that granting an exemption to certain types of users is not permitted under the law. The DMCA only allows exemptions for specific classes of works where there is “evidence of adverse affects” as a result of the law, he wrote.

In addition to fair use, several other exemptions were proposed and considered but were not adopted–including circumventing access controls installed on literary works, sound recordings, and audiovisual works when they prevent legitimate research or limit post-sale use of these works.

Links:

Library of Congress: Copyright Office
http://www.copyright.gov

Rulemaking on Exemptions from Prohibition on Circumvention of Technological Measures that Control Access to Copyrighted Works
http://www.copyright.gov/1201

American Library Association: Copyright Issues
http://www.ala.org/copyright

FCC approves technology to limit internet piracy of digital TV shows
From eSchool News staff and wire service reports

Federal regulators say broadcasters may embed an electronic marker in high-quality digital television shows to make it harder to copy and distribute the programs over the internet.

The industry applauded the move as necessary to prevent the kind of widespread copying that has hit the music business and to ensure that over-the-air television remains free. But consumer groups say it is a further restriction on viewers’ rights, while others fear it is a step toward regulating the internet.

In approving a “broadcast flag” on Nov. 4, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said it was concerned that broadcasters would shift programs from over-the-air free television to pay channels such as Home Box Office if they could not protect programs from illegal copying and widespread distribution.

“The broadcast flag decision is an important step toward preserving the viability of free, over-the-air television,” FCC Chairman Michael Powell said.

Although some people already distribute TV shows and movies to others on line, the practice is limited by the speed of internet connections. It can take hours to transfer high-quality copies.

But as internet connections get faster and broadcasters switch to much clearer digital television, the movie and television industries fear consumers will put high-quality copies of shows and films on the web that others can then download for free. This would reduce the broadcasters’ ability to sell the shows for syndication or overseas.

The music industry saw CD sales fall as free music sharing proliferated on the internet. It has started to sue listeners who illegally distribute songs online.

“Ideally, in the future it will all be digital broadcasting and at the same time we will all have broadband, so the potential for abusing copyright is far greater,” said Craig Hoffman, a spokesman for Warner Bros. Entertainment:

“International sales of television shows are so important. ‘Friends’ is a season or two behind in England. This way, you are not able to make a perfect digital copy of ‘Friends’ and post it on the internet where anyone can download it.”

Broadcast industry officials also praised the FCC’s decision.

“The FCC’s ‘broadcast flag’ adoption represents another advance in the digital transition and ensures that consumers continue receiving the very best in free, over-the-air television programming,” said Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Consumer and other public-interest groups, however, were not pleased with the decision.

“Having just given big media companies more control over what consumers can see on their TV sets by lifting media ownership limits, the FCC has now given these same companies more control over what users can do with that content, leaving consumers as two-time losers,” said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based advocacy group on technology and copyright issues.

In its order, the FCC told makers of digital television receivers that by July 1, 2005, their models must recognize the flag, an electronic signal that broadcasters can embed in their programs.

The commission said the order applies only to electronics equipment that can receive digital broadcast signals, not to digital VCRs, DVD players, and personal computers without digital tuners.

A broadcast flag in an over-the-air TV signal would tell digital devices to encrypt shows when recording. The encryption does not prevent copying at home, but is intended to hinder online distribution. Under one proposed method, encrypted files would “self-destruct” after traveling a certain distance across the internet.

That means a teacher recording a digital TV transmission at home couldn’t send the file via eMail, file-transfer protocol (FTP), or other online means to a school computer for showing to a class, for example.

Congress already has told the TV industry to switch their broadcasts by 2007 to a digital format, which uses computer language, from the current analog format, which uses radio signals sent as waves.

The five-member commission’s action was unanimous, but both Democrats said they had some reservations. Jonathan Adelstein, for example, said he objected to allowing news and public-affairs shows to carry the broadcast flag.

“I see little threat to content creators from a parent eMailing to family and friends a local television news clip of a son or daughter receiving a community service award,” Adelstein said.

Links:

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

National Association of Broadcasters
http://www.nab.org

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Microsoft offers huge cash rewards for catching virus writers

Applying Wild West bounties to modern internet crimes, Microsoft Corp. set aside $5 million on Nov. 5 to pay large cash rewards to people who help authorities capture and prosecute the creators of damaging computer viruses.

Flanked by federal and international law enforcers, Microsoft executives promised to pay the first rewards of $250,000 each to anyone who helps authorities find and convict the authors of the original “Blaster” and “Sobig” internet infections unleashed this year.

The world’s largest and wealthiest software company also pledged to continue making its popular Windows operating system software, the most common target of hackers, more resistant to such threats.

“We do believe this will make a difference,” said Microsoft’s general counsel, Brad Smith. “We can’t afford to have these criminals hide behind their computer screens.”

The Blaster and Sobig programs spread rapidly among hundreds of thousands of computers running Windows, exposing weaknesses in the Microsoft software the company had billed as its most secure ever.

The FBI, Interpol, and the U.S. Secret Service said the $5 million pledge was an unprecedented figure for a corporation to set aside for payments in future criminal investigations.

Microsoft urged anyone with information about the two computer infections to contact local offices of the FBI, Secret Service, or Interpol, or send tips using the web sites for Interpol or the FBI’s Internet Fraud and Complaint Center (see links below).

Students and school district personnel are eligible for the reward money–and, given that school-age youths might be responsible for launching these attacks, it’s entirely possible that fellow students or staff members could collect on it.

In August, 18-year-old Jeffrey Lee Parson of Hopkins, Minn.–who still attended high school at the time–was arrested for allegedly launching a variation of the Blaster worm that infected at least 7,000 computers worldwide.

Microsoft said it would not pay rewards to anyone involved in creating the viruses.

Government officials and others said the $250,000 rewards were the highest in recent memory funded entirely by the private sector–akin to cash bounties paid in the late 1800s by Western banks to vigilantes who hunted robbers.

“It’s like going back to the Wild West,” said Mikko Hypponen of F-Secure Corp., an antivirus company in Finland. He predicted some computer users who chat socially with virus-writers “could easily use their contacts and skills to collect bounties like that.”

Microsoft certainly can afford to pay. Its stock is worth $283 billion–more than the value of most countries–and it has amassed cash reserves of more than $51.6 billion.

The lure of huge payouts was aimed partly at disrupting the underground community’s loosely coordinated network of web sites and chat rooms that virus-writers often use to cooperatively build and polish their destructive software.

“It introduces a massive amount of uncertainty among the hacking subculture,” said Marcus Sachs, a former cybersecurity director at the White House. “That community shares exploits among themselves, working almost in a pack. But if you don’t know who in the pack is going to turn on you, you start distrusting.”

Police around the world have been frustrated in their efforts to trace some of the most damaging attacks across the internet. Hackers easily can erase their digital footprints, crisscross electronic borders, and falsify trails to point at innocent computers.

Keith Lourdeau, acting deputy director for the FBI’s cybercrimes division, said disclosure of the cash rewards does not indicate the agency’s efforts to trace the original Blaster and Sobig infections has stalled. He declined otherwise to discuss the investigation, but some experts said it was unlikely officials were close to making arrests.

“They’re definitely frustrated,” said Richard M. Smith, a technology consultant who helped the FBI in April 1999 track down the author of the Melissa virus, which caused worldwide eMail disruptions. Smith said the $250,000 rewards were surprisingly large. “Some people would turn in their mother for that,” he said.

The Secret Service’s deputy assistant director of investigations, Bruce Townsend, said authorities understand such high rewards might produce false tips. Already, some virus-writers were speculating on internet message boards about planting evidence against rivals and turning them in to investigators.

“That’s something we face in the investigative arena every day, and we’ll address that the way we always do–through evidence and proof,” Townsend said.

Kevin Mandia, who helps train FBI computer investigators, said he believes those responsible for the viruses will be careful enough to delete, hide, or encrypt any incriminating computer files.

“By now, there’s going to be no concrete evidence,” Mandia said. “This doesn’t hurt, but I can’t see this being highly successful.”

Links:

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

Microsoft Corp. K-12 site
http://www.microsoft.com/education/?ID=K12Savings

Interpol
http://www.interpol.int

FBI’s Internet Fraud and Complaint Center
http://www.ifccfbi.gov

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Apple bruised by problems reported with new products

Two problems–data loss and monitor impairment–reported with new Apple Computer products have hundreds of customers up in arms and should be watched closely by Mac-using educators. The trouble reports involve Apple’s new “Panther” operating system and its latest laptop computers.

More than 1,000 disenchanted customers have signed an online petition asking Apple to acknowledge a widespread defect in the liquid crystal display monitors installed with its new Powerbook G4 laptops.

According to the petition–filed on a consumer watchdog site that encourages disgruntled customers to lodge grievances against companies for faulty products and services–the screens are susceptible to “white spots” that appear on the display and, in many cases, grow in number with increased use.

“I didn’t expect a premium machine with a premium price to suffer from such a blatant manufacturing defect,” complained one petitioner.

Educators, too, have encountered the faulty screens.

“Our school purchased a 15-inch Powerbook the day after they were announced, and as of a few weeks ago I started noticing the white spots,” said Elaine Wrenn, technology coordinator for Echo Horizon School in Culver City, Calif.

Wrenn, one of Apple’s Distinguished Educators, said she had yet to contact the company about the defect.

The other complaint–and a potentially more serious one for schools–involves reported compatibility issues between certain external FireWire 800 disk drives and the recently released Mac OS X 10.3 operating system, also known as “Panther.”

Apple says there is a glitch in a particular chipset manufactured by London-based Oxford Semiconductor, which can result in the loss of data stored on an external hard drive. After upgrading to “Panther,” users have complained that information stored on these outside drives is no longer accessible on their machines.

“Apple has identified an issue with external FireWire hard drives using the Oxford 922 bridge chipset with firmware version 1.02 that can result in the loss of data stored on the disk drive,” the company said in a statement. “Apple is working with Oxford Semiconductor and affected drive manufacturers to resolve this issue, which resides in the Oxford 922 chipset.”

Oxford did not return calls by press time.

In the interim, Apple recommends that customers do not use these drives. To stop using the drive, you should “unmount,” or disconnect, the disk drive before doing anything else, the company said.

On the heels of the controversy, at least one FireWire drive manufacturer–Oregon-based LaCie–released updates for its 800 drives, saying it believes the problem is more widespread than Apple claims.

“We believe this problem affects all manufacturers of FireWire 800 drives,” the company said. “LaCie has been actively investigating these reports to identify the cause of the problems and to provide our customers with a solution.”

LaCie customers can download the updates by going to the company’s web site.

Apple’s statement did not indicate whether the defect applied to older FireWire 400 disk drives as well.

Although Apple acknowledges the existence of both problems, the company stopped short of saying whether it would repair the monitors or reimburse customers for their troubles–at least for now.

Educators overall were surprised by the apparent oversights.

“This does seem to be an issue that Apple should jump on and shouldn’t have missed,” said Larry Anderson, founder and director of the National Center for Technology Planning and a long-time Apple advocate.

Still, for schools, the damage so far appears to have been minimal.

Mark Luffman, head of information technology services for Cottonwood Oak Creek School District #6 in Arizona, said schools in his district haven’t even considered upgrading to the new OS X platform yet.

However, he said, the problem isn’t likely to stop him from performing those upgrades eventually.

“I’m confident that whatever the problem–if it is a real widespread thing–Apple will fix it,” he said.

Links:

Apple Computer
http://www.apple.com

Oxford Semiconductor
http://www.oxsemi.com

LaCie
http://www.lacie.com

Online Petition
http://www.petitiononline.com/applelcd/petition.html

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Grab these new handheld computers from PalmOne

PalmOne (formerly Palm Inc.) has announced several new handheld computers suitable for students, teachers, and school administrators.

The Zire 21 handheld is a $99, entry-level Palm that features 8 megabytes of memory, a rechargeable battery, a faster processor, and the latest version of the Palm operating system. While this device displays in black and white only, it does feature four times as much memory as its predecessor.

The Tungsten E handheld is a steal. For only $199, it features PalmOne’s most readable color screen, 32 megabytes of memory, and it now supports Microsoft Office files. Users can create and edit Microsoft Word, Execl, and PowerPoint files without doing any conversion. With an expansion card, the Tungsten E plays MP3 files, video clips, and still photographs.

The Tungsten T3 is PalmOne’s most innovative handheld yet. The bottom part of the device slides down to expose an extra inch of screen space, and users have the option of viewing in portrait or landscape formats. The Tungsten T3 also supports wireless access, records voice memos, and comes with a full 64 megabytes of memory.

The Tungsten line can run thousands of Java-based applications, now that these handhelds include IBM’s WebSphere Micro Environment software. PalmOne also has redesigned its portable keyboard to support the new Tungsten T3’s viewing options. The handhelds connect to the new keyboard through an infrared port and can be arranged either vertically or horizontally. Education pricing is available.

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“SmARTKids” offers a colorful palette of art appreciation activities

SmARTKids is a highly interactive internet resource that encourages students to think about and respond creatively to art. From the University of Chicago’s David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, this fully animated web site invites students to tour an art museum and ask questions about the works on display. Students are encouraged to think creatively and view the artwork from different perspectives. While the web site does not offer prewritten lesson plans for teachers, it does offer a variety of work sheets and hands-on activities that can be printed and distributed in the classroom. Other features, including “Look and Share” and “Art Studio,” provide virtual demonstrations of art processes such as oil painting, ceramics, and photography. If art’s role in society is your focus, try the “Art Detective.” This interactive game helps children explore the rich and storied connection between art and culture. Other tools include a vocabulary section where students can brush up on art history and related terms, as well as an online journal for recording their thoughts.

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New report outlines benefits, hurdles to wireless deployment

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) has introduced a new report intended to help school technology leaders evaluate the potential for wireless connectivity in the classroom.

The 23-page document, entitled “A Guide to Wireless LANs in K-12 Schools,” serves as a road map for educators as they weigh both the hurdles and potential advantages associated with wireless technology.

“Wireless local area networks (WLANs) have been around for some time, but only recently have the costs and benefits met at the magical point that propels a new technology into the mainstream,” the report says. “New standards, faster speeds, and decreasing costs are combining to make wireless networking an ever-more appealing solution for school campus connectivity needs.”

Even as soaring budget deficits have forced schools across the country to scale back efforts to upgrade computers and outdated software applications, many of these same budgetary constraints have been driving the widespread adoption of wireless connectivity in schools. Unlike hard-wired infrastructures, adopters say, wireless devices are available without the financial headaches that come with having to tear down walls and renovate old school buildings for improved online access.

“Eliminating the need to wire and rewire–especially in those facilities with hard-to-access walls–can result in a tremendous financial savings for schools,” the report notes.

And in an era when the phrase “total cost of ownership” (TCO) is becoming a mantra among educators, any innovation that enables schools to save money in the long term is worth considering. The report provides a chart to help schools assess their wireless TCO.

The technology can also open doors for mobility, flexibility, and expandability–the likes of which traditional wire-bound machines have not offered before.

“Today, teachers and students walk with laptops under their arms the way we used to walk with books under our arms,” said Gene Broderson, director of education for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a co-manager of the report committee.

In terms of mobility, the report points out that a WLAN enables students and educators to roam anywhere on campus, while still staying connected. This capability has taken on new significance with the proliferation of laptop computers and other one-to-one computing devices, including handhelds and Tablet PCs, in schools.

“With a WLAN, users of these mobile devices can upload or download tools and assignments from the school network or access the internet without needing to stop, locate an Ethernet connection, and plug in,” the report says.

Flexibility is another bonus. According the report, some educators are tapping wireless as a means to install technology that can change with the evolving needs of their schools.

“Many districts deal annually with expansions, renovations, portable classroom structures, and other physical changes to their facilities,” the report says. “Wireless technology can play a significant role by extending the wired infrastructure to allow devices, people, and entire classrooms to be moved without having to add or re-run cable.”

Wireless networks also are expandable, the report said–meaning they allow schools to build out their networks without having to sacrifice investments already sunk into hard-wired systems.

Advantages aside, CoSN says the report is not intended to advocate for the technology. Instead, its authors hope it will help stakeholders decide when and where to jump into wireless–if at all.

Unfortunately, there is no one clear answer for any school. According to the report, educators need to take into account a number of variables when determining whether wireless will work for them.

To make this decision, school technology leaders first must assess the needs and capabilities of their given institutions. Because wireless access points and mobile devices vary greatly in price, you should consider a variety of factors, the report says, including manageability, or how much control you want to exercise over your networks; support, or whether service and technical support are available with the technology; dependability and performance, or whether the technology will stand the test of time; and compatibility–whether the wireless devices you’ve selected will fit in with existing technology.

For schools, the options have grown with the approval of new high-speed wireless standards. To date, there are three standards schools can choose from–802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g–with a fourth–802.11n–still vying for approval.

While 802.11b has proven to be the de facto standard in schools up to this point, educators also are experimenting with 802.11a, which is more powerful than the “b” standard but only works at half the range. Another option is the recently approved 802.11g standard, which is backwards-compatible with applications running on the “b” platform. While 802.11g is up to five times faster than its “b” counterpart, schools so far have been slow to adopt it–mainly because the technologies have just begun ramping out, the report said.

Another concern is security. Besides securing equipment from tampering and theft–a natural concern given the portability of laptops and mobile access points–school leaders need to think about securing their district’s data and infrastructure from hackers and unauthorized use.

“Wireless [technology] is inherently less secure than a wired network,” said Darrell Walery, director of technology for Consolidated High School District 230 in Illinois and a co-manger of the report.

So far, a number of schools that have implemented wireless networks have found it difficult to protect their systems from mischievous intruders looking to get a free ride from the open-air service. Though many schools have sought to close down these so-called “hot spots,” which allow unregistered users to piggy-back on their networks, the problem still exists.

That said, the report also offers several suggestions to beef up wireless security, from complex encryption keys and network codes to such simple and common-sense preventive measures as password-protected WLANs.

“Wireless is not the best solution in every situation,” the report acknowledges. “Wired networks are still faster than even the best wireless options available today, making them better for multimedia and video conferencing. When cable already has been run and mobility is an issue, you may want to stick with–and add on to–your existing wired network.”

Links:

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

Emerging Technology Report: A Guide to Wireless LANs in K-12 Schools
http://www.cosn.org/emerging_technologies/wireless.html

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Va. Tech puts sensors in football helmets

The ball is snapped and Virginia Tech’s junior varsity football team slams into Hargrave Military Academy’s offensive line in a crunch of plastic helmets and face masks that sounds like a 10-car pileup.

Somewhere in the mix, a Hokies defensive lineman gets cracked on the head at 80 times the force of gravity–about as hard as head butting a brick wall. It’s one of the heavier knocks of the 100 or so he’ll endure in the game.

On the sidelines, mechanical engineer Stefan Duma records the hit on a laptop linked to sensors in the lineman’s helmet. Duma, who specializes in collisions and the physics of safety equipment, is trying to learn how much trauma the brain can take.

“Football is the best for this kind of research,” Duma said. “You know people are going to get their heads knocked around.”

Scientists are still foggy about how concussions happen. Crash tests on humans always posed ethical problems, and previous studies with dummies or animals don’t translate well to the unique size and weight of the human brain.

With football, however, Duma realized there was a unique opportunity to see thousands of hits without worrying about the volunteers.

“They’re going to do what they’re going to do anyway,” Duma said. “We’re just measuring.”

His research team at Virginia Tech began monitoring the Hokies’ practices and home games this season. They record every hit–measured in multiples of “G,” the force of gravity–experienced by four players wearing helmets fitted with the same kind of acceleration sensors that trigger air bags in cars.

By comparing the impacts with routine health exams the players take throughout the season, Duma hopes to determine a player’s chances of concussion after every hit.

“We really don’t know” how much a player can take, Hokies team physician Dr. P. Gunnar Brolinson said. “Is it a 50 G impact or a 70 G impact that is serious? How about multiple hits over a period of time?”

Concussions are the result of an electrical discharge that sweeps through the brain after a heavy blow to the head. The region that’s injured will quickly try to repair itself, rerouting functions in a hypermetabolic state that temporarily impairs memory and the ability to make calculations.

“Sometimes you hit somebody, and you don’t know where you’re at for a couple of seconds,” said Hokies defensive tackle Nathaniel Adibi. “Sometimes you almost knock yourself out.”

It can take more than a week to heal from a concussion, and a particularly bad hit can permanently damage brain tissue. Studies of World War II veterans and retired pro football players also show that concussions can increase the risk of clinical depression later in life.

Unlike other sports injuries, concussions might not be immediately apparent. Many football players have learned to pick themselves up after a major hit and trot back to the huddle for the next play.

“With athletes, 90 percent of the time they’re still walking around after a concussion,” said Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurological consultant with the NFL Players Association and former team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Players regularly re-enter games when they shouldn’t. St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner, for example, continued to play after suffering a concussion Sept. 7 in the first quarter of the Rams’ 23-13 loss to the New York Giants. Warner appeared well enough to continue, but coach Mike Martz said afterward Warner didn’t seem to understand plays called from the sidelines.

“Often, the one making the decision whether to return the player back into the game did not actually see the hit,” Bailes said. “Your view is blocked–some physicians are in the stands. Or sometimes you just don’t see it.”

College football is the same, Brolinson said.

“One of our receivers sustained a concussion two games ago … and nobody knew,” Brolinson said. “He continued to play, and he can’t remember what he did.”

Americans suffer about 300,000 sports-related head injuries each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In football, which injures more college players than any other sport, the NCAA estimates Division I, II, and III teams treated about two concussions each in 2002.

Tech, which prides itself on hard-nosed defense, sees more than that: about six to 10 concussions each year, Brolinson said.

With 8:07 left in the second quarter of the Hargrave game, the Tech defensive lineman gets hit for the 39th time. This one isn’t so bad–a 30 G slap just above his left ear. Duma’s research team sees the collision on the laptop as a yellow arrow pointing to a 3-dimensional portrait of the lineman’s head.

To the right, another computer portrait is surrounded by a crown of arrows where the other 38 hits landed.

After the game, the team will compare the data with the game video to determine the exact angle of the hit and to filter out phantom hits recorded if the player dropped his helmet or knocked it into something while he wasn’t wearing it.

So far, the hits Duma has recorded stay around 10 to 80 times the force of gravity. “But we have seen hits exceeding 100 Gs,” Duma said.

Tech’s Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine bought the helmet system for $20,000 from SIMBEX, a Lebanon, N.H., company that develops safety equipment. SIMBEX president Rick Greenwald said he is developing similar equipment for a few other universities, but the helmets are currently not commercially available.

In the future, Greenwald said he hopes to create similar crash monitoring systems for every sport where head injuries are possible, from soccer to wrestling to hockey.

“Nothing is going to replace qualified medical staff,” Greenwald said. “But I think this will be another tool in their belt.”

Links:

Virginia Tech Center for Injury Biomechanics
http://www.ibl.vt.edu

SIMBEX
http://www.simbex.com

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