Enormous challenges for school technology leaders marked the year just ended–from shrinking state budgets to more stringent requirements for hiring teachers, educating students, and collecting and reporting school data under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Viruses, worms, and unsolicited commercial eMail (or spam) throttled school computer systems to an unprecedented extent. Digital copyright dilemmas cropped up on several fronts. And the largest single program for funding school technology–the eRate–was beset with problems of its own, culminating in a congressional probe into alleged instances of waste, fraud, and abuse.

The news wasn’t all bad. One-to-one computing initiatives continued to gain momentum in states such as Maine, Michigan, and New Hampshire. But not even this development was free from the impact of state budget cuts, as Michigan’s ambitious plan to provide laptop computers to all sixth-graders now appears headed for a 56-percent cutback.

In this special feature, the editors of eSchool New reveal their choices for the 10 most important school technology stories of 2003. How these stories continue to play out in this new year will have significant repercussions for school leaders nationwide.

10. Laptop learning gains momentum

It was a good year for proponents of one-to-one computing initiatives in schools. In March, a mid-year progress report on Maine’s groundbreaking program to give all seventh graders in the state a laptop computer said the machines already were benefiting students. Inspired by Maine’s success, leaders in Michigan and New Hampshire announced similar programs in those states. And, though Gov. Jennifer Granholm later announced her intent to cut $22 million in state funding from Michigan’s program, the initiative still appears to be moving forward, as eSchool News reported last month.

Maine laptop program gets high marks in mid-year survey

Gov. backs one-to-one computing in spite of looming budget deficit

N.H. follows Maine’s lead with school laptop plan

HP to provide laptops to Michigan schools

9. Digital copyright law challenges policy makers

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which prohibits the production and distribution of any product that circumvents the security features of digital media, was intended to prevent the illegal copying and distribution of electronic content. But civil libertarians and some education groups say this controversial law stifles academic research and gives publishers too tight a grip over online content. The past year brought several key legal challenges and interpretations of the law, with broad implications for both students and educators.

Jury’s verdict puts digital copyright law to the test

Judge tosses lawsuit seeking probe of filtering software

Judge keeps student mum on computer system flaws

Hollywood turns thumbs down on DVD copying software

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

8. Feds, firms take steps to can spam

If it seems like your school computers have become overrun by spam, you’re not alone. As of last March, 45 percent of all eMail sent across the United States was spam, according to Brightmail, a San Francisco-based anti-spam company. That figure is up from 16 percent in January 2002–and it’s likely to be even higher today. For schools that provide students with eMail accounts, the problem is especially serious, because much of spam is offensive or pornographic in nature. In fact, a recent survey by internet security firm Symantec Corp. found that more than 80 percent of school-age children receive lewd, inappropriate, or potentially dangerous spam on a daily basis.

Lawmakers and industry leaders took a number of steps in the past year to stem the problem, culminating with the passage of a federal anti-spam law that took effect Jan. 1, 2004. But the new federal law overrides tougher state laws in California and elsewhere, and its critics say it doesn’t go far enough in protecting eMail users.

Feds, firms look to can ‘spam’ from computer networks

FTC: Open servers make schools unwary accomplices to spam

Survey: Four out of five kids receive inappropriate spam

eSN Analysis: State laws unlikely to stop spam

Congress OKs national anti-spam bill, overriding tougher state laws

7. Linux lawsuit looms over open-source movement

In March, SCO Group–which owns the Unix operating system–filed suit against IBM Corp. for allegedly embedding strands of Unix code into its open-source Linux platform. Although the lawsuit named only IBM, intellectual property lawyers say other organizations that distribute versions of Linux–including schools–could be forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and lost profits if the suit is found to have merit.

IBM denied the allegations and has filed a countersuit against SCO, but the multibillion-dollar legal battle threatens to derail the open-source movement just as it has begun to catch on among schools. Fortunately for educators, at least one hardware provider–Hewlett-Packard Co.–said it would protect its customers from SCO’s intellectual property claims if the software is running on HP equipment.

Lawsuit could threaten open-source movement in schools

SCO throws a legal scare at Linux users

Follow up: Novell challenges SCO in Linux fight

IBM countersues in Linux battle

Hewlett-Packard to protect customers from Linux claims

6. States still struggle with virtual school rules

Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were among the many states where debates continued this past year over how to regulate–and fund–so-called virtual schools, which deliver instruction to students entirely online.

Though the number of students taking virtual K-12 courses continued to rise in 2003, questions still linger over how much to fund these projects, who should provide the instruction–and who should foot the bill. These controversies have reached their hottest levels when they involve charter schools operated by for-profit companies. Fortunately, a new organization, called the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL), now exists to help policy makers resolve these types of questions.

Old-school rules challenge cyber education in N.Y., Colo.

Ohio tightens enrollment rules for online charters

States grapple with virtual school legislation

Forum addresses virtual schooling myths

Ohio proposes new rules for online education

Funding fights hammer virtual schools

NACOL will champion online learning

5. Music industry targets illegal file swappers

In April, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) stepped up its fight against the illegal swapping and distribution of music files over the internet by suing four college students for allegedly offering more than 1 million copies of popular music online. Those lawsuits, which were settled for thousands of dollars each, marked the beginning of an aggressive campaign by the RIAA to eradicate illegal MP3 file sharing altogether by targeting the most frequent culprits.

The RIAA began filing copyright subpoenas with universities and internet service providers last spring, asking for the identities of students and other internet users suspected of illegally downloading and sharing music files online. The subpoenas have led to nearly 400 civil lawsuits against alleged file-swappers so far–but in a blow to the recording industry’s anti-piracy campaign, a federal appeals court ruled in December that the RIAA can’t force school systems, universities, or internet service providers to hand over the names of music downloaders if they don’t want to.

At colleges and universities, where the use of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks is a growing problem, the practice of swapping copyright-protected files online has put administrators in the difficult position of trying to balance students’ privacy rights with the need to enforce the law.

At least one school, Penn State University, has hit upon a creative solution. In an apparent campus first, Penn State 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.

The new Napster service is modeled after the popular iTunes Music Store launched by Apple Computer last spring. But Penn State’s use of the service has rankled some students who are unhappy about having to pay for music they add to their personal collections. It remains to be seen whether other schools will follow Penn State’s lead–or whether the university’s students will adapt to a more limited approach to enjoying music online.

Students sued for alleged digital copyright violations

New online music store could tone down digital piracy

Music labels threaten to sue illegal file-swappers

Schools resist RIAA subpoenas

Schools use software, warnings to stop illegal file-swapping

Penn State launches ‘free’ digital music service for students

Court: RIAA can’t subpoena schools, internet providers

4. Cyber security takes on greater urgency

At least two particularly nasty internet attacks exploited vulnerabilities in Microsoft software last year, crippling tens of thousands of computers worldwide. The so-called “SQL Slammer” and “Blaster” worms and their resulting fallout–coupled with a report from the Bush administration’s national security team, which urged schools and other organizations to do their part to help secure the nation’s critical computer infrastructure from cyber terrorism–drew unprecedented attention to the need for better network security.

At a national ed-tech conference in October, the Consortium for School Networking announced a multiyear initiative, called “Cyber Security for the Digital District,” that will provide educators with strategies and tools to ensure the privacy of data and the safe operation of their networks. Microsoft also floated a number of possible solutions to the problem, from automatic software updates to cash rewards for people who turn in virus writers. Though reaction to these various ideas was mixed, most school technology leaders agree on at least one thing: that the current approach to network security–applying piecemeal patches as they are announced–isn’t enough.

‘SQL Slammer’ hammers home network security challenge

Feds recruit schools in cyber security effort

‘eMail spoofing’ threatens school computer networks

Computer worm exploits Windows flaw, snarls networks

Microsoft, schools mull security improvements in wake of latest worm

Security, assessment highlight Technology + Learning conference

Microsoft offers huge cash rewards for catching virus writers

3. NCLB requirements fuel–and steer–school tech use

In its second full year, the federal education law had a profound impact on which technologies schools purchased and how these systems were deployed.

Market research firm Quality Education Data (QED), for example, reported that school technology spending rose slightly in 2003, despite the fiscal crisis that plagued many states. QED attributed the rise largely to schools’ need to invest in new technologies to help them meet the data tracking and reporting requirements of NCLB.

In September, the federal Education Department (ED) announced a $50.9 million public-private initiative to post disaggregated test results and other school data from each state on a single web site, so stakeholders throughout the country could monitor the progress of individual schools and compare them with other schools in their state. Acceptance of this new tool remains in doubt, however, because most states already have begun creating their own tracking and reporting systems to comply with the law’s demands.

Besides helping school leaders make more informed decisions about students’ curricular needs, technology also played a significant role in helping schools meet the law’s new requirements for improving teacher quality. Solutions ranged from “virtual” job fairs aimed at helping schools recruit highly qualified teachers, to web-based systems that enable school administrators to gauge the proficiency of teachers in any subject area compared with state and national standards, so they can pinpoint specific areas for improvement and target their professional development accordingly.

One notable solution–a new internet-based program that allows underqualified teachers, career changers, and other professionals to bypass teacher colleges to become “highly qualified” certified teachers–made its debut Aug. 22 amid some controversy.

This alternative to traditional teacher-education programs, called Passport to Teaching, was funded in part by a $5 million grant from ED to create a cheaper, faster way for schools to meet the teacher-quality requirements of NCLB. But critics of the initiative–including professional teacher-education associations–say it’s a poor substitute for the rigors of traditional teacher-preparation programs, which often require practice teaching and mentoring before certification.

ED: Cyber schools key for NCLB remedies

Personalized learning services stand out at FETC 2003

Schools use technology to recruit teachers from abroad

Schools get help in meeting tech requirements of NCLB

Technology is one of few tools left to ease a worsening teacher crunch

Rural Alaska schools look to online courses for NCLB success

NCLB fuels growth in school tech spending

Web program gives fast track to certification

ED: Tech is key to rural school success

ED launches $50M new data-management tool

MDR: Schools that fail AYP are below average in tech use

2. Budget ax falls on ed-tech programs

Educational technology programs and initiatives were hammered by budget cuts in many states as lawmakers grappled with near-record deficits. A survey of budget data from 31 states by the State Educational Technology Directors Association revealed that state budgets for educational technology decreased an average of 25 percent in 2003, with more cuts expected in 2004.

In one of the most striking examples yet of how constricting state budgets have come to bear on school technology, the Texas Education Agency on Sept. 4 announced a major reorganization that includes the elimination of at least 200 jobs and the liquidation of its educational technology division, long considered a national bellwether for school technology planning and programs. California, Indiana, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, and West Virginia are among other states where lawmakers and school officials have been forced to cut back or eliminate programs that supply new computers, internet access, or instructional resources to K-12 students.

Even worse, federal government spending isn’t likely to make up the gap as Congress struggles to pass a 2004 education budget. As eSchool News reported last month, the omnibus appropriations bill still awaiting Senate approval would cut some $92 million in federal ed-tech funds.

The bill includes level funding ($695.5 million) for the Ed Tech Block Grant program, which is given to states to distribute to local school systems, half by formula and half competitively. But it would provide only $20.5 million for the federal Star Schools program, nearly $7 million less than 2003, and only $10 million for the Community Technology Centers program, or $22 million less than last year’s budget. What’s more, the $62.5 million Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3) program does not appear in the bill at all.

The fallout from these actions has forced school leaders to do more with fewer resources at their disposal. Among the more creative approaches educators have taken to raising additional funds: auctioning off surplus equipment using the world’s largest auction house, eBay.

Bush’s 2004 budget calls for $145M in ed-tech cuts

Bush administration: Study justifies cutting after-school programs by $400 million

Bush administration pushes $200M cut for voc ed

2003 AASA meeting focuses on how to do more with less

Budget ax falls on school tech programs

Schools turn to eBay to unload surplus items

State budget cuts shut students out of Minnesota Virtual Academy

eSN Exclusive: Texas cuts its ed-tech division

Ed tech in trouble in Congress

State ed-tech budgets are shrinking, survey says

1. eRate faces renewed scrutiny

The first sign of trouble came in September 2002, when the Federal Communications Commission’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released its semiannual report highlighting its investigations for members of Congress. The report said OIG was tracking 26 investigations of suspected eRate abuse at the time, 16 of which were initiated in 2002. The September 2002 OIG report led to another by the Center for Public Integrity in January 2003 calling the eRate “honeycombed with fraud and financial shenanigans”–which uncoiled a chain of events that would shake the foundation of the $2.25 billion-a-year program.

Reps. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and James Greenwood, R-Pa., launched an investigation into the operation and oversight of the eRate, which provides discounts on telecommunications services to eligible schools and libraries. Hearings on the lawmakers’ findings are expected this spring. The program’s supporters worry that enemies of the eRate in Congress will use the investigation and its results to mount a renewed effort to kill the program, which is paid for by fees collected from telecommunications companies.

Responding to concerns about lax program oversight, the agency that administers the eRate took several steps to safeguard the program from further waste, fraud, and abuse. It tightened its scrutiny of applications, resulting in more than a billion dollars in funding denials last year, and formed a task force to recommend additional changes to the rules. Some changes already have been implemented for Funding Year 2004–but because they were made on the fly, as schools were in the process of applying (or preparing to apply), these rulings have merely frustrated and confused many applicants.

eSN Exclusive: SLD warns of eRate abuses

eRate bust signals crackdown

eRate faces renewed scrutiny after reports of widespread fraud

SLD denies $590 million in 2002 eRate requests

Lawmakers query FCC about ‘troubling’ eRate abuse

FCC moves to ban eRate ‘bad actors,’ approves wireless

Schools lobby to save eRate

Forum: Simplifying eRate rules will prevent abuse

Task force seeks comment on proposed eRate changes

Congress steps up eRate probe

eSN Exclusive:Big Blue claims eRate rejections are arbitrary and unfounded

eRate probe nets guilty plea

eRate agency could knock 3,700 schools off line

Feds reject Florida’s $7.4 million eRate appeal