Students face off online in this one-of-a-kind spelling bee that is generating a buzz

Spellbee.org, the first-ever online, multi-player spelling bee, was launched to coincide with last spring’s National Spelling Bee by the Dynamical & Evolutionary Machine Organization (DEMO) laboratory at Brandeis University. Using the same philosophy of competition that drives corporations in an open economy, Spellbee encourages students to compete against one another in the hope that their skills will improve out of an inherent desire to succeed. Each player isn’t simply spelling, but is using a variety of skills. Players are first shown a set of words ranging in difficulty. Based on this list of words, they then pick the challenge for their partner. Next, they listen to an audio presentation of a sentence while reading the sentence on their computer screen with one word missing. Finally, they have to spell that missing word–the one picked by their partner. To play Spellbee, children log on using only a nickname. No personal information, such as name or eMail address, is collected and, for safety’s sake, no “chat” or eMail contact is allowed between players on the site–they communicate only through the choices they make in a game.

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Open-source fans hope Firefox browser can stand up to IE

cNet’s News.com reports that supporters of the Mozilla Firefox 1.0 browser are being asked to contribute money to help the open-source community promote the browser with a full-page ad in The New York Times. To pay for the ad, the Mozilla Foundation hopes to raise at least $30 from roughly 2,500 people. It hopes to market Firefox as an alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which dominates the browser market.

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IBM interns eye ways to break away from broken web links

The New York Times reports that a group of university students are working with IBM to devise software that addresses problems related to broken links on the internet. The tool determines the content on the page the user was looking for, and attempts to determine any other page on the web might be housing it. (Note: This site requires registration.)

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State technology grant brings laptops to small Texas district

The Texarkana Gazette of Texarkana, Texas, reports that the local McLeod Independent School District was one of only 23 Texas districts to receive a $380,000 technology grant from the state’s education agency. The fortunate district plans to distribute laptop computers to all 130 of its middle-school students.

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Corporate marketers finding new partner in several K-12 schools

The New York Times reports that K-12 schools are beginning to sell certain naming rights to corporations. In 2001, a school in New Jersey became the first K-12 school to sell naming rights to a gymnasium, and the same school is now considering selling advertising on students’ basketball uniforms. In other states, schools with large football stadiums have also sold naming rights to corporate America. (Note: This site requires registration.)

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Senators question legality of ED’s NCLB public relations blitz

The New York Times reports that the U.S. Department of Education paid a public relations firm $700,000 to study all 2003 newspaper coverage of the No Child Left Behind Act. The firm, Ketchum, was also paid to produce video press releases promoting NCLB. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) is one of two prominent U.S. senators questioning whether ED broke the law by using taxpayer funds for political purposes. (Note: This site requires registration.)

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HP reaches out with new Campus Investment Program

cNet’s News.com reports that Hewlett-Packard has unveiled its new Campus Investment Program, enabling higher-ed institutions to get the company’s Unix operating system for free if they use HP workstations and servers. The program also offers free software updates and perpetual license.

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Minnesota districts push for more digital security cameras

An Associated Press story, carried on DuluthNewsTribune.com, reports that several Minnesota districts are installing digital surveillance cameras. Two high schools in the Mounds View District spent $260,000 to install digital security systems, while the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district is spending even more to put them in elementary schools. Critics, however, contend that these cameras are a violation of students’ civil liberties.

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Feds fund chat-room surveillance research

Amid the torrent of jabber in internet chat rooms–flirting by Qtpie and BoogieBoy, arguments about homework and horror flicks–are terrorists plotting their next move? The government certainly isn’t discounting the possibility. It’s taking the idea seriously enough to fund a year-long study on chat room surveillance under an anti-terrorism program.

A Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute computer science professor hopes to develop mathematical models that can uncover structure within the scattershot traffic of online public forums. His research could lead to a viable way for security officials to monitor internet chat for warning signs of violence, making schools and other potential terrorist targets safer.

Chat rooms are the highly popular and freewheeling areas on the internet where people with self-created nicknames discuss just about anything: teachers, Kafka, cute boys, politics, love, root canals. They are also places where malicious hackers have been known to trade software tools, stolen passwords, and credit card numbers–and where students have revealed plans to inflict harm on their classmates.

On the wall of his office, RPI professor Bulent Yener has a map of the world’s major internet service providers. Yener is working to root out terrorists by examining traffic patterns in internet chat rooms. (Associated Press photo)

“The Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that 28 million Americans have visited internet chat rooms. Trying to monitor the sea of traffic on all the chat channels would be like assigning a police officer to listen in on every conversation on the sidewalk–virtually impossible.

Instead of rummaging through megabytes of messages, RPI professor Bulent Yener will use mathematical models in search of patterns in the chatter. Downloading data from selected chat rooms, Yener will track the times that messages were sent, creating a statistical profile of the traffic.

If, for instance, “RatBoi” and “bowler1” consistently send messages within seconds of each other in a crowded chat room, you could infer that they were speaking to one another amid the “noise” of the chat room.

“For us, the challenge is to be able to determine, without reading the messages, who is talking to whom,” Yener said.

In search of “hidden communities,” Yener also wants to check messages for certain keywords that could reveal something about what’s being discussed in groups.

The $157,673 grant comes from the National Science Foundation’s Approaches to Combat Terrorism program. It was selected in coordination with the nation’s intelligence agencies.

NSF’s Leland Jameson said the foundation judged the proposal strictly on its broader scientific merit, leaving it to the intelligence community to determine its national security value. Neither the CIA nor the FBI would comment on the grant, with a CIA spokeswoman citing the confidentiality of sources and methods.

Security officials know al-Qaida and other terrorist groups use the internet for everything from propaganda to offering tips on kidnapping. But it’s not clear if terrorists rely much on chat rooms for planning and coordination.

Michael Vatis, founding director of the National Infrastructure Protection Center and now a consultant, said he had heard of terrorists using chat rooms, which he said offer some security as long as code phrases are used. Other cybersecurity experts doubted chat rooms’ usefulness to terrorists given the other current options, from web mail to hiding messages on designated web pages that can only be seen by those who know where to look.

“In a world in which you can embed your message in a pixel on a picture on a home page about tea cozies, I don’t know whether you’re any better if you think chat would be any particular magnet,” Jonathan Zittrain, an internet scholar at Harvard Law School.

Since they are focusing on public chat rooms, authorities are not violating constitutional rights to privacy when they keep an eye on the traffic, experts said. Law enforcement agents have trolled chat rooms for years in search of pedophiles, sometimes adopting profiles making it look like they are young teens.

But the idea of the government reviewing massive amounts of public communications still raises some concerns.

Mark Rasch, a former head of the Justice Department’s computer crimes unit, said such a system would bring the country one step closer to the Pentagon’s much-maligned Terrorism Information Awareness program.

Research on that massive data-mining project was halted after an uproar over its impact on privacy.

“It’s the ability to gather and analyze massive amounts of data that creates the privacy problem,” Rasch said, “even though no individual bit of data is particularly private.”

The project comes as federal officials have stepped up efforts to improve the security of schools in the wake of the attack by Chechen rebels on a school in Russia that killed more than 330 people, nearly half of them children. Early in October, the FBI and Homeland Security Department sent to state and local officials a lengthy analysis of the Russian attacks with a long list of school security recommendations. (See “FBI: No terror ties to Iraq school disc,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=5319.)

Links:

Yener’s web site
http://www.cs.rpi.edu/~yener

National Science Foundation
http://www.nsf.gov

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USDA’s rural broadband initiative raising eyebrows

News.com senior staff writer John Borland examines possible abuses of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural broadband funding program. This program, intended to bridge the digital divide, has also helped bring broadband internet access to rural schools. It is now under fire because a large portion of its funds were going to a company that served a wealthy Houston suburb — a suburb that also happens to be in the district of House Republican Leader Tom Delay.

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