‘i-Schools’ expand concept of IT education

The notion of “information technology” (IT) as a separate field of study is undergoing a radical shift at some of the nation’s foremost colleges and universities–and it is this shift that drew more than 250 deans, faculty members, and graduate students to Pennsylvania State University’s University Park campus for a first-of-its-kind conference last week.

Conference participants came from schools where computer and information science departments have evolved into something known as “i-Schools.” At what organizers called the first-ever i-Schools conference at Penn State, participants sought to clarify their definition of what an “i-School” is and address the challenges that such institutions face.

The i-School concept grew from the recognition that the traditional disciplines of information science, computer science, and IT are increasingly overlapping in today’s digital, information-age society, said Raymond von Dran, the dean of Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies (SIS).

Rather than treat these fields as separate areas of inquiry, a growing number of colleges and universities are combining them into a single discipline. The term “i-School” refers to the program of studies for this newly emerging field, which examines not only how information is created, processed, stored, and retrieved–but also what impact it has on people and society.

“An i-School has to be focused on more than some aspect of technology or computer science,” von Dran said. “It has to look at the intersection between technology and people, because it’s all about the focus on information for people.”

The University of Michigan was the first to embrace the term “i-School,” but it’s a concept that has been evolving over the last 30 years, he said.

“People might not know what an i-School is, but they know what a law school is and what a business school is,” von Dran said. “One of our challenges is establishing that recognition. We won’t be satisfied until i-Schools are recognized the same way as law schools or education schools, where no explanation is required to understand what that particular school teaches.”

Information schools have emerged in various ways. Some have grown out of library or information science departments that began to embrace more areas of study, such as IT. Others started as computer science schools that began to incorporate the study of usability, policy, and people. Still other i-Schools just sprang up on their own, von Dran said.

Not yet firmly established in the higher-education landscape, i-Schools continue to evolve. Information schools like Syracuse’s SIS are constantly adding faculty from a variety of fields to address the ever-changing and increasingly complex nature of information and IT research.

At Syracuse University, the SIS has three psychologists on its teaching staff, each with different backgrounds. One has a background in computer science, another in organizational psychology, and the third in cognitive psychology.

“In psychology schools you have psychologists with these same backgrounds, but you also have people with backgrounds in areas like criminal behavior,” von Dran said. “The real difference is that we have the psychologists who want to study the psychological impacts caused by information and technology.”

“The ‘i’ in i-School certainly stands for information, but it also stands for ‘interdisciplinary,'” said James Thomas, dean of Penn State’s School of Information Sciences Technology. “In i-Schools, we’re putting together the complex issues of technology in society and trying to understand how technology can make a difference.”

More than 250 deans, faculty members, and graduate students came to Pennsylvania State University for the first “i-Schools” conference last week. (photo courtesy of Penn State)

Technology education in i-Schools has changed because it’s not just about the technology, Thomas said. “It’s not only about being a proficient programmer, but also understanding how those results will impact people and society, and trying to figure out how to make the technology successful.”

The main issue i-Schools struggle with now is identity. “The biggest short-term challenge we have is explaining to people what the information field is,” von Dran said.

Aside from talks about establishing an identity for i-Schools, conference attendees touched on the search for solutions to big-picture problems–such as the balance between the often-conflicting needs for security and access to information. “It’s kind of a two-sided sword,” von Dran said. “The more you try to screen out things you don’t want in eMail, the higher the likelihood that you are screening out something that you do want.”

Another area of interest was the relationship between information on the one hand and innovation and creativity, on the other–in other words, how the flow of information inspires or helps to stimulate innovation and creativity.

“We’re also dealing with the challenge of properly evaluating the productivity of everyone in an i-School, because we are interdisciplinary and people have different ways of evaluating themselves and their work,” von Dran said. “We have to understand one another.”

“Any time you’re dealing with interdisciplinary research and technology theories, it’s going to be very interesting, because it means folks have to understand multiple fields,” said Penn State’s Thomas. “The programs have to be very familiar with those multiple fields, such as computing and business fields. A challenge i-Schools face is maintaining the ability to move in and out of those different fields seamlessly.”

Some would say that, because an i-School deals with information, an entire university could be termed an i-School.

“A discussion arose at the conference that touched on how universities will emulate their information schools,” said von Dran. But an information school is a bit more unique and specialized than a university.

“You could … argue that, for instance, a school of education is an information school because it deals with teaching information to others. An entire university is all about the transmission of information,” he said. “The difference is that information schools are focused on how we go about creating, transmitting, collecting, organizing, preserving, and retrieving information. While other schools do deal with information, they may not necessarily be as concerned with how that information affects people and communities like i-Schools are.”

The i-Schools i-Conference welcomed representatives from 18 i-Schools within universities across the country. The participants were chosen because their information schools have a central focus on information, have a doctorate program in place, and have sufficiently funded research programs.

“While we believe that it’s important to produce bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees, it’s in the research at the doctoral level where you really establish the future of all this information study,” von Dran said.

“Just the fact that we all got together and are having this conversation across the community was an enormous leap forward,” Thomas said. “It’s so important that lots of people are talking, thinking, and sharing experiences.”

The conference was the first of what organizers said will be an annual celebration of the information field. The meeting was sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation. MIT Press plans to publish a book containing the findings of the two-day conference.


Penn State University’s i-Schools i-Conference

Penn State University School of Information Sciences and Technology

Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies


Grant helps police keep eye on Fla. high school

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports that the Hollyood, Fla., police department will use a $97,272 Secure Our Schools grant to beef up its video surveillance program at South Broward High School. Hollywood police already have plans to put laptop computers in 15 marked police cars. This grant will make it possible for the police to view webcam feeds from school video monitors without having to leave their cars. A major goal of the program is to protect the school from the possibility of an incident like what happened at Columbine High School in 1999.


Pomona responds to newspaper’s eRate story

The Daily Bulletin of Ontario, Calif., reports on the Pomona Unified School District’s reponse to an earlier Daily Bulletin story that raised questions about Pomona’s eRate spending. Pomona officials offered evidence to suggest their spending over the past three years has not violated any eRate regulations, but the newspaper reports it had difficulty verifying some of these assertions. This includes Pomona’s statement that the Universal Services Administrative Co.’s audit had found Pomona to be 100 percent in compliance for its 2005 eRate expenditures.


Chess finds its way into elementary education

The New York Times reports that many elementary schools are offering instruction in the game of chess because of its value as an educational tool, particularly in terms of developing problem-solving skills. A national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting chess has helped these educational efforts by supplying schools with an interactive DVD called “First Move.” The DVD includes exercises that help children learn the rules of the game. (Note: This site requires registration.)


Storms highlight need for data backup

For school district IT personnel from coast to coast, the recent destruction wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita has driven home the importance of backing up school data.

School systems in the paths of these hurricanes have to worry not only about rebuilding their school buildings and their IT infrastructures, but they also must recreate or recover billions of bits of data from computers that were damaged in the storms or the subsequent flooding. Though statewide databases containing information about students in Louisiana and Mississippi are helping educators in the affected areas piece together their computer records, experts say the storms offer important lessons for school leaders nationwide.

Natural disasters on par with Hurricane Katrina are fairly rare, but every school should protect its essential data before an emergency strikes, and school leaders should know what to do with these data when an emergency is imminent, said Tim Margeson, the general manager of CBL Data Recovery Technologies Inc. CBL specializes in retrieving information from failed hard drives in laptops, desktop computers, data servers, and other data storage systems.

“Schools should protect their data from even the smallest of emergency situations,” Margeson said. He recommends that school leaders purchase backup software and set up networks to create a network backup tape. School IT departments would use the backup software at a particular time (it’s best to do it in the evening or at night), select which computers will have data backed up, and then allow the software to copy these data automatically onto a backup medium, such as a DVD or backup tape. School IT staff should know how to perform this procedure, he said.

If computers are damaged and the school has no data backups, the computers can be sent to a company such as CBL to retrieve the data. That process generally takes anywhere from three to five days, depending on the extent of the damage.

“Schools really have to assess the information stored on their computers and determine how important those data are,” Margeson said. “If it’s something they can’t live without, then a data backup system needs to be in place.”

Schools should set up a procedure for backing up their data. It’s better to back up data routinely, Margeson said, because having multiple backup tapes stored off campus makes it more likely that much of a school’s data can be saved. If your most recent backup tape is destroyed somehow, but if you have another month-old tape stored off-site, then you’re only missing a month’s worth of data, he pointed out.

Louisiana’s statewide database containing basic student and teacher information was not damaged in the storm. “A lot of districts have lost physical records, but lots of that information was transferred to the state,” said a state education department spokeswoman. Most of this basic information, including student transcripts, survived. Teacher certification records were kept in the system, and this teacher information reportedly has eased the transfer of displaced teachers to new school districts.

The Mississippi Department of Education also has a uniform online system for collecting and storing student data, called the Mississippi Student Information System (MSIS). This statewide system is based in Jackson, Miss., said Kameron Ball, director of federal programs for the Rankin County School District in Brandon, Miss. Ball is the former educational technology director for Mississippi’s education department.

Student records, grades, class schedules, and other vital information can be accessed at the state level. “We have this information that otherwise would have washed out to sea with the storm surge,” Ball said.

Backup tapes have proven useful for fulfilling payroll in the affected areas. Alvarez and Marsal Business Consulting LLC, a restructuring firm, recovered backup tapes containing payroll information for New Orleans public school employees. New Orleans teachers, despite being evacuated and spread out throughout the country, were able to access their payroll payments in mid-September.

Data backup companies also have proven useful in past natural disasters and other emergency situations.

When Hurricane Ivan went through Grand Cayman Island in September 2004, the storm destroyed the building that housed the servers for the island’s 11 schools. Century Consultants Ltd., a New Jersey-based student information management software company, has provided the island with software since 1999. Century Consultants located a data backup CD created by a Grand Cayman staff member and supplied school officials with a link to its New Jersey server, which gave island officials access to critical student data.

Once internet access was back up, local officials reportedly were able to use these data–which contained recently updated student demographic information–to reunite families that had been scattered to shelters during the storm.

Maxtor Corp., a California-based data backup solutions provider, declared June 2005 as National Backup Awareness Month and recommended important steps to safeguard computer data.

Individuals, schools, businesses, and other organizations all should develop a data backup schedule, Maxtor said. This schedule will differ according to each organization’s needs. “Having a backup schedule is important, because you never know when something might happen and wipe out your data,” said Ben Castro, senior manager for Maxtor’s branded products group.

With the market for personal digital files such as photos and music growing, data backup is becoming increasingly important for individuals as well as businesses and schools, Castro said. Backing up all data, and not just selecting certain files, is important because computer users need to be able to restore their complete computer if a virus or other emergency hits, he added.

Regardless of the form of backup, having an off-site data backup increases the chances that data can be recovered in the event of a disaster or emergency. Castro recommends having two backups, keeping one on site and the other off-site. Rotating the backups keeps both current and leaves an extra available if the on-site backup is destroyed.

Other companies, such as DriveSavers Data Recovery Inc., have compiled lists of important tips on how to salvage computer data after a blackout. As power is restored, fluctuations occur that can damage computers, hard drives, and the data they hold. This kind of situation easily could have occurred to any number of computers in the areas affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

DriveSavers advises against turning computers on as soon as power is restored. Power fluctuations could continue for minutes, hours, or even days, depending on the severity of the situation, and these fluctuations could damage a computer’s hard drive and data. If power remains off, it is best to turn off computers, printers, and any other devices that might have been running before power was lost. Unplugging computers will protect them from power spikes or surges that usually occur when power returns.

Once an area’s power is restored and it seems safe to switch computers back on, it might be necessary to use a disk utility program to repair damage done to the hard drive’s directory structure–this is essentially the hard drive’s “table of contents.” Some operating systems include these utility programs; Microsoft ScanDisk, Apple’s First Aid, or a third-party program such as Symantec’s Norton Utilities all can repair damage.

Consistently creating backups for computer data and creating multiple backup tapes will ensure that most, if not all, of a school’s sensitive data are recoverable in an emergency situation.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


CBL Data Recovery Technologies Inc.

Century Consultants Ltd.

Maxtor Corp.

DriveSavers Data Recovery Inc.


‘Recommended reading’ draws fire in Florida

The Palm Beach Post reports that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is encouraging his state’s students to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as part of the “Just Read, Florida” campaign. However, Bush’s interest in the book comes at a time when a major Republican donor, Philip Anschutz, is about to release a $150 million film version of the C.S. Lewis classic. Anschutz’s company, Walden Media, says it had no influence on Bush’s decision to promote the book. The state’s campaign to promote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has also drawn criticism because the book is often considered to promote Christianity in a proselytizing fashion.


Mich. students ‘cool’ with their SMART Board

The Times Herald of Port Huron, Mich., reports on the use of a SMART Board interactive whiteboard in a local first-grade classroom. The article says students in this class were mesmerized by the interactive whiteboard and truly enjoyed working with it. Hannah Palmer, the technology specialist at the school, said Garfield Elementary was able to purchase its SMART Board with a combination of government funding and money from an independent grant.


Microsoft expanding its security-software push

The New York Times reports on Microsoft’s ongoing efforts to enter the corporate security software market as well as the mainstream consumer security software market. Microsoft is ready to begin testing on its new client-protection technology and identity management software. The Times also reports that Microsoft has joined a new 30-company partnership called Secure IT Alliance which aims to make Windows more secure. (Note: This site requires registration.)


From NCREL: Research puts schools on the path to improvement

From the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL), “Pathways to School Improvement” is an online library of reports and educational research intended to put schools on the path to meeting their educational and improvement goals. Report topics include assessment; how to deal with at-risk students; fostering greater family and community involvement; improving instruction; effective school leadership; literacy; math and science; professional development; and more. Each research-driven topic area also contains summaries of best practices and descriptions of schools that have successfully addressed the issue, as well as collections of materials to support change. As part of its Critical Issues series, NCREL provides advice and research intended to drive institutional change. In one recent feature, NCREL investigated equity and inclusion in math and science classrooms, giving advice for teachers and administrators caught toeing the line between equity and individualized student instruction.


Participants schooled in eRate rules

Seeking a better understanding of the rules governing the $2.25 billion-a-year federal eRate program, more than 200 members of the school, library, and vendor communities gathered in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 30 for a day-long intensive workshop.

The event, sponsored by the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC), which oversees the school wiring program for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), aimed to put applicants on the path to compliance and streamline a process that some critics have branded slow, cumbersome, and inefficient.

Despite USAC’s best efforts to explain the program more clearly, however, service providers and applicants who attended the meeting seemed to leave with more questions than answers. USAC officials declined to say when the filing window for the 2006 funding year might open, for instance (the filing window has opened in November during the past few program years), and they danced around questions regarding the eligibility of some products and services.

Though the eRate remains a valuable source of funding for schools, critics contend that too much uncertainty leaves the door open for creative interpretations of the rules. Many applicants blame their inability to secure funding in part on a persistent bureaucratic morass.

For its part, USAC has taken steps to reduce the burden on schools and other program applicants by providing tools designed to make applying for and receiving eRate dollars easier.

Officials spent much of the day trumpeting upgrades to the SLD web site, demonstrating technical advances designed to help educators, library directors, service providers, and other eRate stakeholders cope with the paperwork that has dogged applicants throughout the funding process.

As part of a mid-day presentation, Phil Gieseler, who works with the SLD to determine what technologies are eligible for discounts under the program, highlighted several enhancements engineered to keep eRate paper-pushing to a minimum.

Among the upgrades available to applicants this year is a new PIN system, or Applicant Personal Identification Number.

According to Gieseler, the new PIN numbers–which USAC intends to distribute automatically to past applicants before the 2006 funding window opens–will lead to “a faster, more efficient” process. It will allow applicants to submit more of the required documentation online, Gieseler said. In the end, he said, the new online system should translate into quicker decisions from USAC regarding funding commitments.

The new PIN system replaces an older system that had fewer capabilities and reportedly was used sparingly by program applicants.

The six- to eight-character identifiers will save time and money by eliminating the need to mail additional documents, such as Form 470 and Form 471 certifications; replace the need for paper submissions; do away with handwritten signatures on certain forms in favor of electronic certifications for everything except contracts; reduce processing delays; and expedite the funding approval process, among other benefits.

Another online feature, called the Block 4 Bulk Upload, will enable schools, districts, libraries, and consortia to complete Block 4 of Form 471 offline and then upload it to the official form. Block 4 is typically used by large school districts and consortia to calculate their eligible discount rate based on the size of their enrollment and the services they seek.

In the past, online applicants had to complete Block 4 in conjunction with the rest of Form 471. That’s no longer the case with the new upload feature, however. Realizing how complex and intensive Block 4 calculations sometimes can be for larger institutions, USAC now will give applicants the opportunity to complete Block 4 offline, edit it, and then upload it to the system before submitting the finished application for review.

The idea, explained Gieseler, is to cut down on time and reduce the potential for error, giving applicants the opportunity to exercise caution when filing important forms.

A third feature, called Online Item 21, encourages applicants to create their Item 21 attachments–documents detailing how they plan to use the services provided–entirely online and share them with their contracted service providers.

Working together, service providers and applicants can use the Online Item 21 form to minimize discrepancies or oversights in the description of services that would force USAC to deny any portion of the funding request, Gieseler said.

Though it’s against program rules for eRate applicants to consult with service providers before the competitive-bidding process, USAC officials actively encourage more cooperation between applicants and providers once the contract is awarded.

By supplying service providers with a copy of their Item 21 attachments, USAC officials say, applicants can do their part to help speed up the processing of invoices. With better communication comes fewer filing mistakes–and that’s better news for everyone, said Gieseler.

Despite these advances, service providers and applicants who attended the session were hesitant to credit USAC with effectively eliminating the bureaucratic pitfalls that have opened up the embattled program to the waste, fraud, and abuse that have marred its reputation in recent years.

Some eRate coordinators questioned whether the guidance outlined in USAC’s presentation meshed with what has been communicated in the past by the FCC, while others expressed confusion over eligible services and criticized program officials for a lack of specifics with regard to what is and is not allowed under the current rules.

Though USAC officials tactfully sidestepped some of the most pointed questions, presenters did offer several tips and hints designed to help schools and other applicants improve their odds of getting coveted eRate funds.

In the upcoming funding year, a big point of emphasis will be effective technology planning, said USAC’s John Noran as part of an early-morning presentation on the dos and don’ts of the funding program.

Official technology plans, which applicants must submit to USAC along with their funding request, must include these five essential elements:

  • Goals and strategies for using the technology;
  • A plan for professional development and training related to the upgrade;
  • An assessment of the applicant’s overall needs;
  • A detailed project budget; and
  • An evaluation process designed to test how well the project was implemented.

Though technology plans are not required for standard phone and voice-mail services, Noran said, they must be submitted for any other type of technology request–“and the plan must be submitted and approved before services start,” he said.

Stressing the need to maintain the integrity of the program, USAC’s Catriona Ayer called on eRate coordinators and others to exercise due diligence and restraint when applying for funds.

“In the end, the applicant is going to be the one who’s on the hook here,” she said. “We’re looking for you to have thought about what you need and listed this in your technology plan. You need to have retained all of your information in order to respond to us.”

Another rule program administrators say they plan to pay particular attention to this year is the new “Two in Five Rule,” which limits applicants to requests for internal connections–including switches, hubs, routers, and wires for building sites–to twice every five years. If they receive a commitment, but do not go ahead with the project, applicants can file a Form 500 to cancel the request, and the rule will not take effect, Noran said.

Gieseler pointed out that it’s essential for applicants to pay attention to program rules, especially with regard to conditional eligibility.

He also warned against getting too creative. Better, he said, to stay within the spirit of the rules, than to attempt to make the federal dollar stretch into areas it was not originally intended for.

Going too far, he cautioned, could result in an audit. And, in the event that rules were broken, an investigation can lead to USAC attempting to recover the funds.

To help ensure program compliance, USAC last year conducted a series of 1,000 random “Site Visits.” Though USAC officials contend the visits are intended primarily to help them get a better sense for how the program is working in schools, they point out that auditors are required to report any program irregularities, which could lead to a more expansive audit.

While applicants will always have an opportunity to appeal any disciplinary actions taken by USAC as a result of an audit or Site Visit, Ayer said, the best way to protect against any potentially damaging action is to keep your paperwork in order, adhere to the rules and regulations outlined on the SLD’s web site, meet all filing deadlines, and stay away from questionable projects and service providers.

Regarding the products that are eligible for discounts in 2006, USAC officials could not specify when the final revised Eligible Services List would be available. But a draft copy of this list–which awaits approval from the FCC–has been posted to the SLD web site and lists several proposed changes for this year.

Chief among these changes are a new entry for terminal servers, which better defines for applicants what types of equipment constitutes a “terminal server” and under what condition these tools can be used; a clarification with regard to eligible wireless internet access, which specifies that eRate funds can be used to install wireless only in “eligible locations”; and a change that enables applicants to request wireless wide-area network components as Priority Two internal connections. Previously, wireless WAN components were eligible only as Priority One services, officials said.

The next eRate training session is scheduled for Oct. 6 in Chicago. Additional training sessions also will be held in Los Angeles on Oct. 11 and Newark, N.J., on Oct. 21. Attendees must pre-register with USAC.

Related item:

USAC’s 10 eRate mistakes to avoid at all costs


Universal Service Administrative Co.

School and Libraries Division

Federal Communications Commission

“Summary of Proposed Changes to FY 2006 Eligible Services List”