Security experts find six more holes in Microsoft’s browser

TechWeb reports that the Danish security firm Secunia has found six additional security holes in the Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 web browser. One vulnerability, which is part of the Windows XP Service Pack 2 release, allows hackers to disable a warning to users that downloaded files might contain viruses.


Will virtual lectures vacate classrooms?

Pay a visit to any lecture hall on just about any college campus nationwide; chances are you’ll notice a few empty chairs. Two years ago, most professors would simply have chalked these absences up to illness or, perhaps, just plain sloth. But, according to a new national survey, more students than ever are opting to get their learning online, trading in early morning lectures and long walks across campus for grades handed down in cyberspace.

Released Nov. 12, the second annual Sloan Report on Online learning entitled, “Entering the Mainstream: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2003 and 2004,” is based on a survey of 1,100 colleges and universities. Its findings suggest that enrollments in university-sponsored online courses are spiking at average rates of 25 percent year over year.

The study was sponsored by the nonprofit Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and conducted by the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C), a group dedicated to pursuing the benefits of online education in schools. The survey looks at the factors contributing to the rapid expansion of online learning in postsecondary education, and the study’s authors project the trend will continue through 2005.

The survey is not the first of its kind, nor is the phenomenon limited to colleges. In September 2003, Boston-based Eduventures Inc. released a report that tracked a veritable explosion of virtual courses in K-12 schools.

At the K-12 level, the Eduventures report “What can Virtual Learning Do for Your School?” suggested institutions are using virtual courses to provide both supplemental and advanced instruction to students who otherwise wouldn’t have the option of taking such courses. Going a step further, some states–including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Florida–have developed full-fledged virtual schools, where students can take some or all of their courses online.

Now the trend is picking up at the college level as well. According to the Nov. 12 survey, approximately 2.6 million postsecondary students are currently enrolled in online courses through various colleges and universities nationwide, marking a significant increase compared with the 1.9 million students taking classes online in the fall of 2003.

But as students continue to flood online learning programs, opponents of the trend have remained critical, especially when it comes to a perceived need for more face-to-face contact among faculty members, students, and classmates. The Sloan-C authors, however, report such concerns are overblown. According to the survey, students enrolled in online courses say they are as satisfied –if not, more satisfied–with the instruction they receive over the internet as they are with the instruction in traditional classroom environments.

The survey states that 40.7 percent of online learners are “at least as satisfied” with their virtual teachers and courses as they are with their other classes. Students who attend large schools such as those offering Doctoral/Research, Masters, and Associates degrees tend to have a higher opinion of online courses than those attending small, Baccalaureate schools (enrollments of 1,500 or less), the study finds.

One school that says it’s making significant inroads through the addition of online courses is the University of Central Florida (UCF). An institution with more than 42,000 students, Central Florida offers numerous undergraduate- and graduate-level courses for completion over the internet.

“At the University of Central Florida, we have found that online education compares favorably with face-to-face instruction,” said UCF President John Hitt. “Today’s students are comfortable learning and communicating online, and we can increase our enrollment and diversity without burdening our already crowded classroom schedule.”

And UCF is not alone. Large universities such as the University of Maryland at College Park and the University of Massachusetts also have been aggressively expanding online opportunities for students.

In fact, 53.6 percent of the responding schools said “online education is critical to their long-term strategy,” according to the report.

Larger institutions seemed to be the most adamant about the need for more virtual opportunities in schools, with 65 percent pushing for greater emphasis on internet-based instruction in the future. Small schools, on the other hand, were less enthusiastic. More than 20 percent of all private nonprofit schools that responded to the survey said they did not consider online learning an essential part of their future.

Elaine Allen, professor of statistics and entrepreneurship at Babson College and co-author of the Sloan report, said online learning is providing schools with a means to attract students who wouldn’t normally attend a four-year college.

Though an increasing number of undergraduate students are enrolling in online classes, Allen said, “the kinds of [learners] most attracted to these types of courses tend to be older students.” These are mainly people with families and full-time jobs who seek to fit schooling into their already busy schedules.

Despite the enthusiasm, she said, it isn’t likely online courses will eventually replace the demand for traditional classroom instruction. “The area in which we’ve seen the most push-back is in traditional four-year liberal arts colleges,” she said. All indications are that the majority of these types of students still prefer the four-walls of the classroom to the convenience of cyberspace.

In fact, personal preference might now be the most important distinguishing factor when it comes to a student’s choice of learning experiences.

“One of the earliest perceptions about online learning was that is was of lower quality than face-to-face instruction,” the report explains, but today, that perception has changed dramatically. “When asked to compare learning outcomes in online courses with those for face-to-face instruction, academic leaders put the two on very close terms, and expected the online offerings to continue to get better relative to the face-to-face option,” researchers said. “Schools continue to believe online learning is just as good as being there.”


Executive Summary: Entering the Mainstream: “The Quality and Extent of Online Learning in the United States 2003, 2004”

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Eduventures Inc.


International group working toward a new Linux standard

cNet’s reports on the formation of the Linux Core Consortium, which will work to standardize Linux 2.0. The open-source group is not directly linked to companies that sell major Linux releases, but these companies have said they support the international initiative.


Margaret Spellings for ED Secretary

Margaret Spellings–the person Bush political strategist Karl Rove called “the most influential woman in Washington that you’ve never heard of”–was tapped Nov. 17 to become the next U.S. Secretary of Education.

Her nomination by President Bush came just four days after current ED Secretary Rod Paige’s resignation. (See: “Bush II: Paige out, NCLB to high school“)

Spellings, 46, has a long association with Bush, having served as his senior adviser while he was governor of Texas from 1995 to 2000. During the president’s first term, Spellings served in the White House as assistant to the president for domestic policy. As a member of Bush’s staff when he was governor of Texas, she helped him formulate a state education policy that later became the backbone of the national No Child Left Behind Act.

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  • Considered by some Washington insiders as a policy maven, Spellings also is said to possess keen political acumen. When Bush ran for governor in 1994, she was his political director. Shortly after Bush won, Spellings–then known as Margaret LaMontagne–became his education adviser and helped him pass legislation that emphasized accountability and achievement, local control, and early-childhood reading skills–all of which became part of the national law.

    A 1979 graduate of the University of Houston, Spellings was associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards before joining Bush’s gubernatorial campaign.

    If confirmed by the Senate as expected, Spellings will become the second woman to become Secretary of Education since the department was created in 1979. The first woman to hold the office, Shirley M. Hufstedler, was appointed by President Carter on May 7, 1980.

    In Spellings’ home state of Texas, she oversaw the Texas Reading Initiative and the Student Success Initiative to eliminate social promotion. She also played a key role in developing a rigorous assessment system–and is a strong advocate for school accountability.

    Since coming to Washington, Spellings reportedly has influenced Bush’s domestic agenda on everything from justice to housing. Many policies she advocated were endorsed by the president during his 2004 re-election campaign. These include a revision of Social Security, limiting medical malpractice litigation, and making more taxpayer funds available to faith-based organizations that do charitable work.

    “You bet she was an education person in Texas, but I realized how brilliant a woman she is,” Bush told the Dallas Morning News in 2001. “She can handle just about every task we give her.”

    Perhaps Spellings’ most notable accomplishment over the past four years was her role as architect of the national No Child Left Behind law. She has said education has always been her main policy interest.

    The National Education Association, which Paige alienated earlier this year when he called it a “terrorist organization,” reacted positively to the Spellings selection.

    “This is a great opportunity for the administration to change the tone of its discourse with the education community, particularly the 2.7 million members of the National Education Association who are in schools all over this nation,” NEA President Reg Weaver said in a published statement. “We look forward to finding common ground with Ms. Spellings in her new role.”

    Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., also expressed support for Spellings, calling her “a capable, principled leader who has the ear of the president and has earned strong, bipartisan respect in Congress.”

    Age is perhaps the most dramatic difference between Spellings and Paige. Spellings is 25 years younger than her predecessor. She also seems less likely to upset teacher’s unions and is reportedly more interested in dialogue with educators.

    “She’s conservative, but she’ll listen to teachers; she’ll listen to administrators,” former Bush senior education adviser Sandy Kress told the Associated Press. “She wants to change the system, but she wants to talk to people in the system.”

    Spellings’ appointment is subject to confirmation by the Senate. Confirmation hearings are expected to get under way in January.


    Spellings’ White House bio

    U.S. Dept. of Education


    Free Culture college students break bonds of copyright law

    Wired magazine reports that college students are forming Free Culture groups to enlighten others on campus about the limitations of copyright law. The students are concerned that strict laws are stifling creativity in young people. “If the technology is not locked down and the (copyright) laws don’t stop us, we can build a democratic, free culture in which everyone can participate, in which you don’t have to have the major backing of a studio to make a movie,” said Nelson Pavlosky, co-founder of the Free Culture group at Swarthmore College.


    Texas district handing out RFID tags to its 28,000 students

    The New York Times reports that a school district in the Houston suburbs is undergoing the nation’s most ambitious test of student RFID tags to date. The Spring Independent School District is handing out 28,000 ID badges that will enable district security personnel to keep track of students getting on and off school buses. (Note: This site requires registration.)


    Majority of internet users targeted by phishing scams

    cNet’s reports on the latest developments in the fight against internet phishing — a malicious practice in which people are fooled into believing they are responding to eMail from legitimate companies. According to one privacy watchdog group, seven out of 10 people who go online are subjected to phishing scams, and 15 percent have been tricked into giving out sensitive information.


    Middle school class takes the plunge into a paperless world

    The Dallas Morning News reports that a middle school class in Allen, Texas, is striving to be entirely paperless. The class of about 40 students is experimenting with technologies that might one day be standards in education. (Note: This site requires registration.)


    Put young readers on a path to success with “Get Ready to Read!”

    From the National Center for Learning Disabilities comes a reading resource targeted specifically to young readers. The Get Ready to Read! program delivers research-based strategies to parents and teachers in order to put children on the path to literacy. Chief among the web site’s many resources is a 20-question screening tool for four-year-olds, designed to illustrate their readiness for school reading programs. Based on the child’s score, the test will provide a list of links and resources intended to help parents and teachers target each student’s weaknesses and build upon his or her strengths as a reader. Students interested in improving their skills online can log onto the site’s vast activity section. There, young readers will have access to more than 36 different exercises designed to bring literacy into everyday life. Students also can play a series of animated games and use home and classroom literacy checklists to ensure they’re taking all the right steps to improve as readers.