New tool connects chums and alums

“Poking”–a new 21st-century form of the childish practice perfected by generations of bickering siblings–is quickly becoming the latest buzzword on college campuses. More than 1 million current and former students from coast to coast reportedly are swept up in the digital phenomenon created by, an online user’s circle that is part popularity contest, part social encyclopedia.

Created by a group of friends and former roommates at Harvard University last February, gives students at participating universities an opportunity to cultivate new relationships via the web, weigh in on the latest gossip across campus, and keep track of friends through a visual depiction of their personal social network. For participating schools, the site provides an instant “virtual network” connecting past and current students.


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  • Chris Hughes, co-founder of, said the goal was to develop a site where students could mingle across campus–or across the globe. Originally, Hughes said, the idea was kicked around only half-seriously through the course of several late-night dorm room conversations. No one really expected the concept would catch on beyond Harvard, he said. But today, students at more than 335 schools nationwide reportedly use the service.

    Phil Boland, a junior psychology and criminology major at the University of Maryland at College Park, said he spends an average of an hour per day–and sometimes longer–upgrading his own facebook with information about friends, as well as personal stories he includes as part of his online profile.

    When it comes to procrastinating–a skill Boland admits he excels at–there is no better way to waste time than digging up dirt on your friends over the internet, he said.

    “It’s … basically a complete distraction when I’m trying to do my homework,” joked Boland.

    Maybe. But that hasn’t stopped college students and several recent graduates from turning out for the service in droves.

    “It’s a good way to keep in touch with people,” said Cameron Chandler, a 2004 University of Virginia graduate who signed up for before leaving the school. Though she uses the service sparingly, Chandler said, she enjoys reading peoples’ profiles and keeping track of what her friends are doing with their lives.

    That’s really what the site is all about, added Hughes–creating “a place in cyberspace where people [are] able to document the friendships they have in real life.”

    Students and alumni at participating universities can use the site for a variety of purposes. “It’s sort of like a social encyclopedia to share and trade information,” Hughes explained. Besides uploading and maintaining their own personal profiles, including contact information, extracurricular interests, and other social tidbits, the service lets students search across campuses for users who share similar interests and invite them to take part in special-interest groups designed to attract people with similar tastes.

    At the University of Maryland, Boland and his online chums have taken to creating such offbeat groups as “The Boy Meets World Fan Club” and “Catholics for Religious Diversity,” among others.

    For many college students, also is used as a tool to break the ice between strangers. Can’t remember the name of that cute girl you saw in biology class? If you’re lucky, you can find her profile using thefacebook’s class list feature, which keeps track of members’ class schedules.

    Unlike other online communication venues, such as Microsoft’s Instant Messenger service and ICQ Inc.’s popular SMS service, which enable users to send personal messages from their home computers directly to their friends’ cell phones, Hughes says is more about documenting relationships in cyberspace than it is about instant communication.

    “It’s really nice to know that you can find your friends and keep track of them,” Hughes said of the service.

    Among one of thefacebook’s most entertaining features is its friends’ list. As students meet one another online using the site, they have the option of inviting each new acquaintance to join their list. Then, as their online roster of friends continues to grow, other facebookers can compare lists, using the feature as a means to gauge their popularity on campus.

    Last semester, Boland–who plays rugby at Maryland–said he and one of his teammates decided to go head-to-head to see who could get the most friends using Boland thought he did pretty well, adding 167 names to his list, but his efforts were no match for his teammate, who snagged 253 new friends.

    “He’s got the advantage, though,” added Boland. “He’s younger, so he knows a lot more people.”

    The online fraternity created by won’t likely get you VIP access to the hottest parties in town, noted Boland, but it will make sure people on campus know who you are.

    “The only reason I do it, really, is to up my personal legends at the school,” boasted Boland, who configures his to send updates and messages directly to his cellular phone.

    And then, of course, there’s the poking thing.

    “I’m not really sure what it’s for,” said Boland, referring to the quirky feature that notifies users when they have been “poked” by friends. “I pretty much just do it late at night when I want to get a girl’s attention … though it doesn’t work that often,” he said, laughing.

    Others are still trying to figure it out.

    “I’ve never been poked,” admitted Chandler, sheepishly, “but I’ve been wondering what it is all about.”



    Online and into your school: The Smithsonian brings history to life

    The Smithsonian Institution has upgraded its central education web site to include a wealth of new educational content for students ages 6-12, including interactive activities, homework help, and games for all disciplines–from art and history to science and space. Updated features include Explore and Learn, an online gateway to dozens of interactive and educational Smithsonian web sites for kids; Smithsonian Kids, a site that invites younger learners to see and explore many of the artifacts preserved by the Smithsonian over the years; Apollo 11, an interactive feature that takes student learners back to the days of Neil Armstrong and examines the state of science, politics, and technology during the days when man first set foot on the moon; and Mr. President, a resource created in response to the 2004 presidential elections, which provides resources that include brief biographies of our country’s leaders and portraits of current and former presidential figures. Overall, the web site–which features separate sections for children, families, and teachers–contains resources from 18 Smithsonian museums, the National Zoo, and the Smithsonian’s many research centers.


    Harvard’s president sharply criticized for discussion of gender

    The New York Times reports that Harvard president Lawrence Summers is not backing off his suggestion that basic sexual differences might explain why women are not as strong at math and science as men. Summers gave his controversial speech at an academic conference last week. (Note: This site requires registration.)


    Chicago after-school tutoring companies get mixed reviews

    The Chicago Sun-Times examined several local private after-school tutoring companies, finding they clearly have their share of problems. The newspaper reports that even though local companies are already working with 41,000 students — with many more to come — they have high teacher turnover and little standardization of teacher quality.


    States feeling budget crunch as legislatures reconvene for 2005 reports that nearly a dozen states are facing billion-dollar deficits at the start of the 2005 calendar year, and that can’t be good news for their education budgets. States under the most financial pressure are California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, Illinois and Massachusetts.


    ‘Alert devices’ let students call for help

    A team of researchers at East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, N.C., is testing several technologies for their possible use in creating a network of personal alert devices to help keep students safe.

    Last year, two University of North Carolina (UNC)-Wilmington students were murdered. Now, Barry DuVall and his staff at ECU’s Center for Wireless and Mobile Computing spend their days building portable safety alert systems on trash cans, mounting wired poles in the yard, and testing cell phones with panic buttons.

    Their mission: Find a way to make personal alert devices work on North Carolina’s college campuses.


    Learn about technologies that are revolutionizing school administration and classroom instruction in eSN Special Reports. Each report offers a comprehensive overview of a hot topic in the education field.

  • School Safety and Security
  • Informed Instruction
  • IP Telephony
  • Accessible Technologies
  • Data-Driven Decision Making
  • They grapple with questions such as: key fobs or cell phones? Wired or wireless? More security inside buildings–or outside?

    Some of the technology they work with has been on the market for a decade. Some is still in the lab.

    But DuVall wants some sort of device in the hands of students and staff at the 16-campus UNC system–and he wants it there now.

    “I think there’s a tendency to put off worrying about things like personal safety and sort of assume it will go away or we won’t have to take it too seriously,” he said recently. “But when we read every day, things like a student shot at a high school here last week, things like that are happening all around us.”

    DuVall hopes UNC system officials soon will endorse a proposal to create a network of alert devices that will function not only on UNC campuses, but also off-campus and at the state’s private colleges and universities.

    Jessica Lee Faulkner, 19, and Christen Marie Naujoks, 22, were the UNC-Wilmington students who died a month apart last year.

    Faulkner was killed in her dorm May 5; fellow student Curtis Dixon was charged with kidnapping, raping, and murdering her. Dixon was in custody when he committed suicide in December 2004.

    Naujoks was shot to death June 4, allegedly by former boyfriend, John Brian Peck. Peck, a former UNC-Wilmington student, killed himself three days later as he fled from police.

    Mainmain Yu, 22, an ECU graduate student from the Hunan province of China, said she worries about crime on and off campus and would appreciate having a personal alert device.

    “I am a female, so I feel that it is not safe enough to walk alone at night,” Yu said. “And my American friends warn me lots of times that, after dark, Greenville is not safe enough.”

    The center’s research got a public viewing in November, when it sponsored a conference on alert devices that attracted eight vendors and more than 100 representatives from law enforcement and UNC schools.

    Among those who attended was Jim Ramier, an Atlanta-based sales representative for Linear Corp., a Carlsbad, Calif., wireless company.

    Linear makes a transmitter that works with the “blue light” safety devices that are found on many campuses, including ECU’s. By pushing a button on one of the blue light stations, people can let authorities know they’re in trouble and where they are.

    Of course, for a blue light device to work, an endangered person has to be able to reach it. Linear’s transmitter, which can be carried on a key ring, allows the lights to be activated from up to 100 feet away. It works both outside and inside a building, provided the student is close enough to the blue light.

    As many as 65,000 individually coded transmitters reportedly can work off one system.

    “If you’re in the building and within 100 feet of the blue light and press the button, it’s going to activate it and tell them student Betsy Jones is within 100 feet of this particular blue light,” Ramier said.

    Bosch Security makes another key fob-style transmitter that reportedly has been used at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., for more than a decade. A student once used her transmitter to alert authorities that she was in a car with her former boyfriend, who was trying to drive her off campus. Antennae and global positioning technology can be used to track people through their transmitters.

    “Everybody knows security is a beep away,” said Lee Struble, campus safety director at Nazareth, which also uses the devices to track expensive equipment. “There is a general sense of increased safety, similar to a neighborhood-watch program.”

    He said Nazareth averages five or six alarms a year, including medical emergencies, fights, and disputes between boyfriends and girlfriends.

    Security doesn’t come cheap. Jeff Scott, who works in application sales for Bosch, estimated that Nazareth’s system, used by 1,800 people in 20 buildings across 100 acres, cost about $500,000. At 23,000-student ECU, Ramier estimated a Linear system that works with the existing blue lights would run about $200,000.

    And neither system works off-campus.

    Wider range is the appeal of Benefon–essentially a cell phone with a panic button. It can work worldwide but is less reliable indoors, where it can be hard to pick up a satellite signal, said Jonathan Ventulett, vice president of operations for Airo Wireless in Atlanta, which sells the Finnish-made Benefon in the United States.

    With a retail price of $400 each, Ventulett said, most Benefon sales are to the military and the government. East Carolina is the first campus to express any interest in the device, he said.

    At Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., a pilot program is scheduled to begin late next month that will use the school’s wireless computing network to monitor the location of about 100 alert devices.

    Jay Dominick, chief information officer and vice president for information systems at Wake Forest, said devices will work inside buildings and will first be distributed to students and staff who use the music and art building, where people often work alone.

    “This sort of technology is going to explode over the next few years–being able to tell where you are and where things are around you, and being able to do something with that information,” Dominick said.

    Scott said Bosch developed its alert device with the college market in mind but has had to branch out and sell to other institutions, such as long-term care facilities.

    The college market “doesn’t lend itself to new technology,” he says. Schools are “very slow to change the process.”

    DuVall dreams of putting a device in the hands of students and faculty that will make them feel safe on and off campus.

    “Looking beyond the confines of the university would be desirable,” he said. “Projects that integrate the campus with the community are so important. So we need to look beyond a restricted environment. People are always on the move, so we need to have a lot of different options.”


    Center for Wireless and Mobile Computing


    Linear Corp.


    Bush pushing NCLB-style mandates for high school students

    The Los Angeles Times reports that President Bush is calling for mandatory reading an math tests throughout the high school years. This initiative extends the No Child Left Behind law into the high school years. It also comes at a time when the U.S. Department of Education is under fire for the Armstrong Williams scandal. (Note: This site requires registration.)


    ETS develops test of students’ ability to find info on internet

    The New York Times reports that with so many college students having trouble distinguishing legitimate internet reference sources from bad ones, the Educational Testing Service has developed a test of their ability to make the right choices. ETS’ new assessment, to be unveiled at colleges and universities later this month, tests students’ ability to organizae and interpret information from multiple sources. (Note: This site requires registration.)


    Federal judge: Take evolution disclaimer off biology textbooks

    The Washington Post reports that a federal judge has ordered school officials in suburban Atlanta to remove stickers from high school biology textbooks that emphasize evolution is a theory, rather than a fact. The judge ruled that such stickers are unconstitutional because they endorse a religious view. (Note: This site requires registration.)