2004 AASA conference highlights school leadership

Public education’s role in a democratic society–and what it takes to be a successful school leader–were the main themes of the American Association of School Administrators’ 136th Annual Conference and Exposition, held Feb. 19-23 in San Francisco.

Keynote speeches explored the role of the public school in America and the qualities needed for successful school governance in the 21st century. Participants agreed a chief concern was bridging the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their more affluent peers–a challenge many exhibiting companies aimed to address with software intended to identify struggling students and tailor instruction to help them succeed.

AASA also unveiled a new online master’s degree program for aspiring school principals, and several individuals were honored for their outstanding educational achievements–including AASA’s Superintendent of the Year and eSchool News‘ Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winners (see http://www.eschoolnews.com/resources/surveys/editorial/savvy/ TechSavvySupe04.pdf).

The conference began with a keynote speech from John Goodlad, founder and president of the Seattle-based Institute for Educational Inquiry and a celebrated author. Goodlad, who helped found the Center for Educational Renewal at the University of Washington and also served as dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, was blunt in his criticism of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal education law that requires annual testing of students in grades three through eight in reading and math.

“Test scores correlate with no social virtue,” said Goodlad. “The mission of education in a democracy is to stress not just the academic, not just the personal, not just the social, but all of those.”

Goodlad’s opening remarks preceded a number of sessions examining NCLB and its provisions. Staffers from the U.S. Department of Education were on hand to discuss key requirements of the law, and they urged superintendents to call the department’s new toll-free hotline (888-NCLBSUP) for answers to their questions.

Meanwhile, in a Feb. 20 luncheon session, two superintendents revealed they are considering challenging the law in federal court.

John J. Mackiel, superintendent of Omaha Public Schools in Nebraska, and Frederick Morton, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Virginia, said they are pursuing possible legal action against the federal government for not providing adequate resources to help schools comply with NCLB. Though no lawsuits have been filed yet, Mackiel reportedly said other districts could join Omaha in a class-action suit if the district moves forward with its plan.

From good to great

The vagaries and difficulties of NCLB aside, schools don’t have to be limited from achieving greatness by their circumstances, according to Jim Collins, author of the book Good to Great, which identifies the common principles shared by companies that have made the leap from “good” to “great.”

In his keynote speech Feb. 20, Collins said these same principles can be applied to schools.

For one thing, he said, the process takes time–it’s never tied to a single momentous decision, but rather the cumulative effect of several smaller decisions over time. Also, the move from good to great starts with great people, then proceeds with great ideas, and only then results in great action.

“It’s not people who are your greatest asset,” Collins said. “It’s the right people.”

Great leaders have a tenacious will and an ambition for the success of the enterprise as a whole, not just themselves, Collins said. They attribute their institution’s successes to the team as a whole but accept full responsibility for its failures. They’re also able to keep faith in their ability to succeed, while not being blinded to the “brutal facts” of the difficulties they face.

It’s safe to say these qualities characterize Bill McNeal, superintendent of the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina, who before Collins’ speech was named AASA’s 2004 National Superintendent of the Year.

McNeal, a “home-grown” leader who worked his way up the ranks from social studies teacher to superintendent during his 30-year career with the Wake County schools, heads a district of 109,000 students that is growing at a clip of nearly 5 percent a year.

Since becoming superintendent, McNeal has focused all of the school system’s energies on meeting the goal of having 95 percent of third and eighth graders achieving at or above grade level. He has helped narrow the district’s achievement gap while continuing to challenge its most advanced students.

“I have the best group of children you will find anywhere, and their parents are not so bad either,” he said. “I have a team that supports me, protects me, and covers up my mistakes. I will do my best not to embarrass them.”

To help foster more school leaders like McNeal, AASA announced the launch of an online master’s degree program that will prepare would-be principals for the demands of today’s school climate.

The program consists of 10 online courses that can be purchased for delivery by any accredited institution. Courses, which include “Ensuring Quality Education for Students with Diverse Needs,” “Using Data to Strengthen Schools,” and “Collaborating with Families and Communities for Student Success,” were developed by Los-Angeles-based professional development firm Canter & Associates.

Walden University, an online institution based in Minneapolis, Minn., is the first school to offer the degree program, with some 40 students already enrolled.

Information-age leadership

McNeal’s record also proves he understands the role technology can play in raising student achievement.

His district has piloted the use of an internet-based television system to narrow the achievement gap by creating a library of video lessons that students who are struggling to meet certain standards can use to help them get up to speed. Wake County also just announced a partnership with Wayne, Pa.-based firm Kenexa to implement a web-based system for screening potential teachers. The system reportedly can predict the ability of candidates to relate with students and exhibit good judgment.

At a Feb. 21 luncheon sponsored by computer maker Gateway Inc., eSchool News honored 10 other superintendents for their exemplary leadership and vision in using technology to improve education. Winners of the newspaper’s Fourth Annual Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards, announced earlier this month, were chosen by their peers in conjunction with eSchool News editors.

“Used to be, when you talked about what makes an effective information-age school leader, it was someone who understood that today’s students need to be able to collect information, analyze it, and use it to form a higher level of understanding. Computers and internet access were the tools to facilitate this inquiry-based approach to learning, and effective information-age school executives were those who worked to provide equitable access to these tools for all students, trained teachers to integrate them into instruction, and fought for the financial and technical support necessary to ensure that these tools would remain available and reliable so teachers and students could count on their use,” said Dennis Pierce, managing editor of eSchool News,, in his address to the winners.

“Today, while these characteristics are all still essential, you can add to that list the ability to use technology yourselves as tools of inquiry and understanding. The mandate that no child be left behind–and no student go untested–has made it vital for you and your staff to use sophisticated technology systems to identify students or groups of students who are failing and target instruction accordingly. The tangle of federal rules and the flow of corresponding funds requires the use of robust software to ensure that rules are met and funds are spent accordingly.”

Pierce concluded: “As Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winners, you all have led the transition from 20th-century school district executive, who oversaw the teaching of these skills to students, to 21st-century district leader, who practices them in your daily responsibilities. You model the effective use of technology in your day-to-day execution of the superintendency. You exhibit a thorough understanding of the role technology can play in educating students, streamlining school district operations, and ensuring the overall success of your schools. You also demonstrate exceptional vision in recognizing how emerging technology solutions can solve new challenges.”

Following Pierce’s remarks, John Cowie, director of K-12 and higher education for Gateway, presented the awards. This year’s winners are:

  • Milt Dougherty, Unified School District 444, Kansas
  • Ann Hart, Catawba County Schools, North Carolina
  • Michael Jacobsen, Weber School District, Utah
  • Sheldon Karnilow, Half Hollow Hills Central School District, New York
  • Rodney Lafon, St. Charles Parish Public Schools, Louisiana
  • Louis Martinez, Las Cruces Public Schools, New Mexico
  • Cameron M. McCune, Fullerton School District, California
  • Mike Moses, Dallas Independent School District, Texas
  • Jim Ray, Spartanburg School District Three, South Carolina
  • Karen Woodward, Lexington County School District One, South Carolina

Supplemental Educational Services

Over in the exhibit hall, a new trend emerged at this year’s show: a sharp rise in the number of companies offering Supplemental Educational Services (SES).

The phenomenon can be traced directly to a provision of NCLB. The law requires all schools failing to meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals for three consecutive years to offer parents of low-income students their choice of tutoring from among a state-approved list of SES providers. Districts can use up to 20 percent of their Title I funds to pay for this tutoring, but they must spend at least 5 percent of their Title I funding on SES if parents of eligible students request such services.

Besides mainstay tutoring firms such as Kaplan K-12 Learning Services, The Princeton Review, and Sylvan Education Solutions, several providers of K-12 instructional software–including HOSTS Learning and PLATO Learning–also have begun marketing SES solutions. Many of these software companies-turned-SES providers hire a school district’s teachers, staff members, or other local professionals to mentor struggling students using the company’s own software.

For example, HOSTS Learning–which is an approved SES provider in some 20 states–encourages school systems to hold on to their Title I funds by designating their highest-performing schools to be tutoring sites. The company then offers two days of on-site training for teachers in these high-performing schools. The teachers learn how to use HOSTS software to provide additional instruction after school in reading and math for SES-eligible students from underperforming schools.

Other AASA exhibitors promoting SES solutions included EdSolutions, Failure Free Reading, Fast ForWord, Innovative Educational Programs (IEP), and Read Right Systems.

School accountability solutions

Many of the conference’s nearly 300 exhibitors demonstrated software designed to improve school accountability.

For instance, Renaissance Learning–probably best known for its Accelerated Reader software–demonstrated a new program called Standards Master, a solution intended to help school systems prepare their students for end-of-year exams, ensuring that all students can meet state standards in reading, math, and language arts.

The program consists of four formative assessments given to students throughout the year, each correlated with the state standards that students are expected to meet. Students can take the assessments either online or with a pencil and paper. The tests pinpoint the skills students still need to master, and they offer prescriptions for improvement that are aligned with Renaissance Learning’s instructional software.

Renaissance Learning also previewed a new solution that will be formally announced in March. Called Renaissance Place, it’s a web-based information system that integrates state test data with information from Standards Master and the company’s entire line of curriculum products, bringing all of this information together into a single platform that will allow educators at all levels to monitor their students’ progress and improve teaching and learning.

Standards Master and Renaissance Place mark a shift in the company’s focus from classroom and school-based products to enterprise-level solutions, said Art Stellar, Renaissance Learning’s new chief education officer. Stellar joins the company after 17 years as a superintendent for a number of districts, including Oklahoma City, where he helped reduce the number of state-defined “at risk” schools from 32 to three over seven years.


Software Technology Inc. (STI), of Mobile, Ala., unveiled a low-cost solution for meeting the highly qualified teacher and paraprofessional reporting requirements of NCLB. STIPD (STI Professional Development) is a web-based program that can identify non-highly qualified teachers and paraprofessionals in a district’s schools; monitor the expiration of credentials for certified staff members and paraprofessionals; create and track parent notification letters; manage all district-approved professional development activities; and allow the immediate application of all professional development activities toward the renewal of teacher certifications and paraprofessional credentials, the company said.


Safety & security technologies

The National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM), with funding and encouragement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has initiated a project to help schools achieve greater levels of safety, health, and security by reducing and managing risks for a wide range of contingencies, NASFM announced at the conference.

The association’s Safe & Secure Schools project is moving forward on three tracks. One track is engaged in conducting a thorough review of risks and developing methodologies school administrators can use to prioritize the risks faced by their schools. A second track is evaluating, integrating and, where necessary, creating tools to help schools prevent and respond to a range of hazards. These tools include performance standards and requirements for safety and security technologies, model policies and procedures, and best practices. The third track is focused on determining how best to help school districts fund the safety and security enhancements they will need, and in helping schools to build community confidence in the safety and security measures they have taken.

Research began in the fall of 2003. Initial project offerings are expected to be ready for testing with select school districts in the spring of 2004.

“The goal of the Safe & Secure Schools project is to help schools decide for themselves which measures they need to take to become truly safer and more secure, in the most cost-effective way possible,” said James A. Burns, NASFM president and fire administrator for New York state. “Schools that successfully deal with issues of life safety, protection of property, and continuity of operations can then focus their efforts and resources where they belong–on education.”

NASFM is undertaking the initiative along with a number of partners and advisors, including Honeywell International and the National Infrastructure Institute.


Ingersoll-Rand (IR) Education Solutions promoted its Safe Schools Perimeter Security Program, an all-in-one, easy-to-use system for securing the perimeter of a school building. Available in 4, 8, 12, and 16-door packages, the program includes electronic access control, digital video recording, alarm monitoring, camera control, photo ID badging, and a visitor tracking system. IR says its system is completely scalable to fit any school’s needs.


IC Corporation–a division of International Truck and Engine Corp.–demonstrated new technologies for keeping students safe on the way to and from school. IC’s latest school buses come with kid-friendly escape hatches, rear door alarms, and switches on the steering wheel to activate warning lights and open bus doors. Before drivers can lock the bus for the night, an alarm requires them to walk to the back of the bus, open and close the rear door, and return to the front, thereby ensuring that “no child is left behind.”


Core Inc. of Naperville, Ill., announced the national launch of Manners Matrix, a fast, simple way to assess a school’s climate by examining such behaviors as bullying, harassment, and discrimination.

Administrators issue a 30-minute, Scantron-format survey to students, teachers, staff members, bus drivers, and parents to gain a complete, multidimensional perspective of the school’s climate. Within two weeks, the company gives administrators a CD-ROM that includes results from the survey in various formats and an executive summary outlining strengths, challenges, and recommendations for improvement. Reassessment of the school climate is done at the end of the year to measure the success of the school’s action plan.


Other exhibitor news

Preferred Educational Software, of Byron, Ill., demonstrated The Administrative Observer, software that enables school administrators to create high-quality staff evaluations using a Palm or Pocket PC handheld computer. Once an observation or evaluation is complete, you can sync to your desktop computer and print your finished report, enabling you to give immediate feedback after a classroom visit. The desktop version of the software requires a PC running the Windows operating system.


Maynard, Mass.-based Virtual High School Inc. (VHS) said it has signed an agreement with the Massachusetts Department of Education to create an Online Advanced Placement Academy for the state’s high school students. The department has awarded $693,000 to VHS this year, with a potential three-year award of $2.1 million, to create a virtual school that will deliver pre-AP and AP courses online to low-income and rural schools.

The courses will target Massachusetts schools where at least 40 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunch programs. The goal is to increase the participation of low-income students in AP-level courses, and program officials say they expect to serve at least 52 targeted schools.



American Association of School Administrators

Canter & Associates

Gateway Inc.

Kaplan K-12 Learning Services

The Princeton Review

Sylvan Education Solutions

HOSTS Learning

PLATO Learning


Partnership investments from the Boeing Co.

Education is one of the Boeing Co.’s four areas of support. The largest single block of company contributions goes to education, including K-12 and college and university programs across the nation and in the countries where Boeing has operations. Boeing is a major supporter of systemic reform in public education. The company works in partnership with public school districts located near major Boeing facilities and encourages employees to become active volunteers engaged in sharing their knowledge and skills with K-12 students.


Film studios prevail against DVD copying software

Educators and other consumers will not be able to buy software that can copy movies in digital video disc (DVD) format onto blank discs for personal or classroom “fair use,” if a federal judge’s ruling is upheld.

Siding with Hollywood studios in a high-profile copyright case, Judge Susan Illston ruled Feb. 20 that software made by Chesterfield, Missouri-based 321 Studios violates the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which prohibits the circumvention of anti-piracy measures such as the Content Scramble System protecting movies on DVDs.

The judge ordered the company to cease making or distributing such software within seven days of her order.

The company said it would appeal the ruling and ask for a stay during the process.

“Despite today’s ruling, 321 stands firm in our vow to fight the Hollywood studios in their effort to take away our customers’ digital rights,” said Robert Moore, founder and president of 321 Studios.

The software company had argued that its products merely give consumers fair use of the movies they’ve purchased: backing up expensive copies of children’s movies in case the originals get scratched, for example, or copying snippets of films for educational and journalistic use.

But the studios said the software unfairly uses unauthorized keys to unlock the copy protection software built into the DVDsthe same keys that duly authorized DVD players use to play the movies.

In her ruling, Illston agreed with the studios that the software violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and that the law does not violate the right to free speech or interfere with the fair-use rights of consumers.

“While 321’s software does use the authorized key to access the DVD, it does not have authority to use this key, as licensed DVD players do, and it therefore avoids and bypasses [the Content Scramble System],” the judge wrote.

The Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the studios named in 321’s lawsuit, praised the ruling.

“Today’s ruling sends a clear message that it is essential for corporations to protect copyrighted works while facilitating the enjoyment of entertainment offerings through new digital technologies,” MPAA President Jack Valenti said.

Groups that had joined the lawsuit in support of 321 said the ruling hurts the legitimate rights of consumers to make backup copies of DVDs they buy legally and urged reforms to the existing law.

“In passing the [Digital Millennium Copyright Act], Congress certainly did not intend to eliminate all consumer copying,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This court’s reading of the statute in the 321 Studios case allows a ban on any tool that enables consumers to copy their DVDs.”

321 Studio’s Moore said his company would continue to sell its DVD Copy Plus and DVD X Copy software without the built-in tool for descrambling movies. Because descrambling software is widely available on the internet, however, Moore called the judge’s ruling “a hollow victory” for Hollywood executives.


321 Studios Inc.

Motion Picture Association of America

Electronic Frontier Foundation


Canon’s newest projector is light, bright, quiet–and affordable

At only 4.9 pounds, Canon’s lightest, quietest, and most versatile portable projector yet can be carried easily from classroom to classroom. The LV-S3 is a native SVGA-resolution (800 pixels by 600 pixels) liquid crystal display (LCD) projector with flexible connectivity for presentations from a laptop, digital camcorder, digital camera, digital video disc player, high-definition television, videocassette recorder, and more.
The LV-S3 projector has a noise level of 32 decibels and brightness up to 1,250 ANSI lumens for improved viewing. Its 1.2X Genuine Canon Optical Zoom lens projects a 100-inch, theater-sized image from only 10.4 feet away, making it ideal for small spaces. A remote control with USB Remote Receiver can be used as a wireless mouse and can control key projector functions commonly used during a presentation.
The suggested retail price for the LV-S3 is $1,299.


Take a virtual trip into literary history with “The 19th Century in Print”

“The Nineteenth Century in Print: The Making of America in Books and Periodicals” is a great resource for students to explore 19th-century American history through the words and pictures of the authors and illustrators of the period. This fully online collection is a part of the Making America project, a collaboration between Cornell University and the University of Michigan to preserve deteriorating texts, including 23 popular magazines and more than 1,500 books that illuminate themes central to American life in the mid- to late-19th century. Topics include the Civil War, slavery and abolition, religion, education, self-help and self-improvement, travel and westward expansion, and poetry. The materials selected for inclusion illuminate subjects ranging from education, psychology, and American history to sociology, religion, science, and technology. The collection is part of the National Digital Library Program, an effort by the U.S. Library of Congress to offer broad public access to a wide range of historical and cultural documents as a contribution to lifelong learning.


Michigan signs $68M deal with HP for school laptops

Michigan’s state budget office announced Feb. 20 it has signed a four-year, $68 million contract with Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) to provide thousands of laptop computers and other services to sixth graders across Michigan using federal funds.

The state Department of Management and Budget has been working on the contract since the Palo Alto, Calif.-based computer giant agreed in December to charge no more than $275 per student per year for the state’s “Freedom to Learn” program. HP also will provide technical support, insurance, and training under the program.

House Speaker Rick Johnson, a Republican from LeRoy, Mich., who first created the laptop grant program under the name “Learning Without Limits” as a pilot project in 2002, said he’s happy the effort is moving forward.

“We are ready to take the next step, together with HP, to offer even more students the opportunities that come through Freedom to Learn and our ability to reach kids through a one-to-one relationship with their teachers,” Johnson said in a news release.

Up to 40,000 students could receive laptops or other handheld devices in the program’s first year, according to the Michigan Virtual University, which is running the program with the state education department. Laptops and other technology could eventually go to all of Michigan’s 132,000 sixth graders under the program, it said.

Schools that have their applications approved will receive $250 per student in the first year of the four-year program, the Michigan Virtual University said.

The budget for the current fiscal year set aside $17 million in federal funding for the “Freedom to Learn” program. The $68 million HP contract is based on a projected $17 million in federal funding for each of its four years.

Federal funding for the program is limited to poor schools listed as high priority that fail to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, said Michelle Lavra, spokeswoman for Michigan Virtual University.

Schools considered high priority likely would include 112 that haven’t made enough improvements on test scores for five years. Nearly 900 schools didn’t make adequate yearly progress in the last school year.

Despite the restrictions on the federal dollars, Lavra said the agency is encouraging all school districts and intermediate school districts to apply so it can gauge interest in the program.

The deadline for grant applications has been extended to March 5, and the state already has received 160 applications, she said.

Schools that haven’t participated in an earlier, smaller version of the program and are awarded new grants under the program likely will begin to receive their laptops in the 2004-2005 school year that begins this fall, Lavra said.

George Warren, director of HP’s K-12 division, said the company is proud of its partnership with Michigan.

The company’s package includes 450 lessons and projects in line with state curriculum standards, teacher professional development, and a centralized, statewide portal to give teachers, parents, and students the ability to work together on improving education.

At the end of the four-year lease, districts reportedly can purchase the equipment for $1 per laptop.


Freedom to Learn


Simulation-style video game targets education

A software start-up company relying on MIT-derived know-how is developing a historically accurate, high-tech video game that it hopes will engage high school and college students in World War II (WWII) history lessons. The game will employ state-of-the-art technology while meeting the standards and accommodating the limitations of today’s classrooms, its developers say.

The idea appeals to some educators, who believe video-game technology can be a powerful teaching tool if tailored to the classroom environment.

Although a handful of mainstream video games, such as Civilization III or Age of Empires, are useful tools for teaching social studies, they are not a perfect match for the classroom, said Kurt Squire, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who is interested in piloting the new WWII game.

“In cases like Age of Empires, you have kids playing the game and getting interested in the history and developing a lifelong love of history,” Squire said. But “one of the problems with a game like that is it’s designed to be used at home. It requires 200 to 300 hours of game play.”

Muzzy Lane Software, of Newburyport, Mass., intends to address this and other limitations of mainstream, simulation-style programs with the launch of Making History, an educational video game expected to debut this fall.

“We’re taking the best of the state-of-the-art the gaming industry has to offer … and applying it to our product. But because it is an education product, there are additional things we need to address,” said Nick deKanter, the company’s vice president.

Making History will have shorter play segments, ranging from 45 to 90 minutes long, that are more suitable for school schedules. It also will have reporting and feedback features built in.

“If this is to be a strong tool in the classroom, it has to be able to collect and report what students have done,” deKanter said.

Unlike typical consumer-oriented video games, Making History features a recording engine that will keep track of the decisions students make and their outcomes. Besides using this information for assigning grades, teachers can start classroom debates with it. For example, if 32 percent of the class decided to go one way and the rest decided to go another way, the teacher could ask: Who had the better result, and why?

Historical accuracy is another problem with using mainstream games in the classroom. Although no simulation is entirely precise, entertainment-based games have more freedom to fudge the facts.

To combat this, Muzzy Lane’s designers have based the game on the best-known history as reported by respected universities and professors. But, because history is a product of different perspectives, teachers reportedly will be able to modify certain assumptions–such as the assertion that Winston Churchill was hawkish, for example.

Making History’s technology, graphics, and interfaces will be familiar to students. But what’s different is that students will learn, and even experience, difficult and hard-to-explain concepts surrounding WWII, the game’s creators say.

History involves a fairly complex set of events and trends, notes deKanter. Making a decision to form a treaty with another country, for example, involves economic, political, and diplomatic repercussions.

Making History intends to immerse students in the period and give them an opportunity to think and make decisions like actual historical figures. “It is designed specifically for education and not entertainment,” deKanter said.

Students will be asked to make critical, strategic decisions as they handle challenges such as reuniting a series of regions in Germany, peaceably rebuilding the country and its economy, and keeping Europe’s borders defined by the Treaty of Versailles without going to war.

The game will provide students with an advisor in each policy area.

“We try to make it easier for teachers by having an easy learning curve for the student,” deKanter said. “The game’s advisors take the student by the hand and say: You need to be thinking about these issues.”

Emerging trend

Though Making History is one of the first commercial simulation games of its kind to come to market, more will follow, predicts Squire, who works with the Education Arcade (formerly MIT’s Games-to-Teach project) and has a long history of developing and researching computer games for the classroom.

“I think immersive worlds in education will become the norm,” Squire said. “I don’t think we’re going to throw out classrooms and textbooks, but you will see [the technology incorporated] in a wide variety of areas.”

Educational simulations, on par with high-tech video games, are already widely used in military, adult, and corporate training. Virtual U, for example, is a PC game where players take on the role of a university president and practice running a university or college. Players are in charge of the school’s budget, hiring, student scheduling, student enrollment, admission standards, student housing, classroom facilities, and more.

Already there is some research, and many anecdotal reports, to suggest that the use of certain educational video games can improve student achievement, Squire said.

“In our research at MIT, students who played with a physics game called Super Charged did 20 percent better than kids [who] didn’t use the game,” he said.


Muzzy Lane Software Inc.

The Education Arcade

MIT’s Games-to-Teach Project


Program teaches kids internet safety

A new interactive computer program offers New Hampshire kids a way to protect themselves from internet predators.

Gov. Craig Benson, Attorney General Peter Heed, and Education Commissioner Nicholas Donohue on Feb. 18 unveiled the program, known as NetSmartz Workshop, to educate children about the dangers of the internet.

“It feels to the kids like a computer game,” said Jenn Gillins of NetSmartz.

A recent study showed one in five kids has received a sexual solicitation over the internet. One in four was exposed to unwanted pictures of nudity or sexual activity while online last year.

Police will continue to search out internet predators, but Heed said knowledge is the best defense for our children.

The NetSmartz Workshop computer program will be sent to seven schools in the state as part of a pilot program.

“They’re going to help other schools learn how to use the program,” said Gillins, who will train the teachers.

In addition, parents at home and teachers at any school will be able to download the program and related materials from a new web site.

“This is something we need to do as a state,” Benson said. Children often are savvier about using computers than adults but remain naive about the ways people might try to take advantage of them, he said.

The NetSmartz program was developed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

The program uses computer animation and games to teach children about internet hazards. Children learn not to give out personal information online and to be wary of strangers they meet in chat rooms. It encourages children to talk to a trusted adult if they encounter something online that upsets them.

The program offers four levels for different ages from kindergarten to high school. For older teens, the program uses personal stories from kids who were victims of predators they met over the internet.

“Hopefully, it’ll be a wake-up call to teenagers,” Gillins said. Teachers and parents can download supplemental activities to reinforce the lessons.

“We hope every community in New Hampshire eventually participates,” said Donohue.


New Hampshire NetSmartz Workshop


University unveils robot receptionist

She might not be paid, but Carnegie Mellon University’s newest staff member does all that a typical receptionist should: gives directions, answers the phone–even gossips about her boss.

“Valerie” is considered the world’s first robot receptionist with a personality, university officials said Feb. 18. The blonde “roboceptionist” interacts with people by talking about her boss, her psychiatrist, and her dream of being a lounge star.

“We wanted to give her an underdog character, struggling to make it in a world of humans,” said Kevin Snipes, 26, a graduate student in drama writing, one of four writers who came up with Valerie’s fictional character.

“After a while on the job, she gets testy. But she can be charming too.”

The school-funded project is the result of a 2 1/2-year collaboration between Carnegie Mellon’s computer science and drama departments with a goal of creating a socially skilled robot that engages people. Officials say the robot has potential commercial applications and the drama department may incorporate it in a musical cabaret–despite her limited tone and pitch.

“She has no idea she’s awful,” Snipes said.

Valerie is a drum-shaped contraption with a digitally animated face that appears on a computer display, perched in a custom-made booth at the entrance of a computer science hall. With her ability to detect motion, she greets visitors as they approach. Type in a question on a keyboard and she dispenses directions around the Pittsburgh campus and fills visitors in on the weather.

Eventually her creators would like to install face and voice recognition, and make Valerie more lifelike by taking her “face” off a flat-screen monitor.

Valerie, however, does have her limits. Visitors have to type on a keyboard to communicate with her, and she understands only simple questions.

“What we don’t have is a robot with the type of understanding people do (about their surroundings),” said Reid Simmons, research professor at the university’s Robotics Institute. “It’s creating illusions that this robot is really more socially aware than it is.”



Carnegie Mellon University


New university library will use robotic cranes to fetch old books

Leading-edge technology being installed in the new library at Valparaiso University will use the robotic limbs of a computerized crane to fetch obscure books from the library’s collection. University officials say the system will save staff members time and enable them to make better use of available study space within the library, providing room for additional computers, study lounges, and even a cafe for patrons.

The university’s new Christopher Center for Library and Information Resources, opening in time for the fall semester, will house many of the library’s older and lesser-used volumes in a massive two-story, two-aisle storage facility manned by an electronic crane interfaced with the library’s online catalog. When a request for a book is made, the crane will find the correct volume in the stacks and deliver it to the circulation desk automatically.

The crane system will work four sections of bins, dropping the requested books off at a station where librarians then pull them out. The system is accessible from anywhere using the internet and will store orders when the library is closed.

The technology, manufactured by Wisconsin-based HK Systems Inc., relies on a unique software package that interacts with the electronic crane, instructing the machine what volume or volumes to seek out when an order is placed through the university’s online catalog.

That way, University Librarian Rick AmRhein, said, when a student gets to the circulation desk, “the book will already be there, waiting for them.”

Todd Hunter, an account executive for HK Systems, said the technology varies in price depending on the size and scope of the library and the number of machines needed to patrol its aisles. But a single crane system operating within a single stack generally sells in the $1 million range, he said.

Although one software program can control any number of machines, the cranes themselves are limited to a single aisle per device. That said, it makes good economic sense for libraries to build stacks as long and tall as possible, thus cutting down on the number of machines needed to canvass their collections, Hunter said.

Valparaiso officials purchased two cranes to sift through more than 300,000 titles, AmRhein said.

The university isn’t the first to install such a system. The idea actually has been around for about 20 years. In the early 1980s, Cal State Northridge installed one of the nation’s first electronic library cranes. According to AmRhein, that device received national attention after a 1998 earthquake devastated the campus, nearly demolishing every portion of the school’s library–except for the electronic crane, which remained intact, he said.

The crane is just one of the many modern features the Christopher Center for Library Information Resources will offer. The four-story, $33 million building will have plenty of computer and study space, large classrooms, a cafe, and four lounges with gas fireplaces.

AmRhein said the goal is to bring all of the university’s information technology (IT) resources–including the school’s IT help desk–under a single roof along with its vast library and information resources.

“The building is very high-tech,” said AmRhein, who anticipates the new library eventually will become a “one-stop-shop” for students’ technology and resource needs.

AmRhein said the newest volumes will remain on the shelves for librarians and students to access by hand, while volumes that typically are accessed less than three or four times a year will be housed in the storage facility equipped with the crane. When the new library is finished, officials say they expect it will contain more than 600,000 titles in all.


Valparaiso University

HK Systems Inc.