The past year saw a number of developments that were significant to educational technology. In this two-part look back at 2005, the editors of eSchool News count down what we believe are the 10 most noteworthy of these stories–many of which will continue to make headlines in the coming year.

10. Schools seek legal alternatives to peer-to-peer file sharing

One year after the entertainment industry began suing computer users suspected of swapping copyright-protected songs and movies online, the industry set its sights on college students in particular: In April, it filed lawsuits against more than 400 students for allegedly using Internet2 connections for illegal file-sharing activity on campus.

These latest lawsuits gave school leaders an even greater incentive to seek out legal alternatives to peer-to-peer file sharing networks. Already, a growing number of colleges and universities across the country had begun introducing services that enable their students to download music and movie files over their high-speed computer networks legally.

School leaders increasingly have come to view these services as a “win-win-win” situation: Students can access their favorite media in digital format; schools can use these services as a recruiting tool; and the entertainment industry–which has funded many of these projects–can shape the habits of future customers.

Schools looking to crack down on illegal file sharing across their networks also got a huge boost from the U.S. Supreme Court in June, when it ruled that internet file-sharing services can be held responsible if they intend for customers to use their software primarily to share content illegally.

But, despite a considerable rise in the number of schools that now provide legal music and movie downloading services for their students, many industry experts say the pirating of digital media continues to be a problem on campus.

Students who have tried these legal alternatives to peer-to-peer file sharing networks point to their rather limited options and terms of use, suggesting these services need to offer better choices before they will catch on widely among students–and pay off for schools.

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Digital downloads big media on campus

Record companies target Internet2

High Court rules against file sharing

Illegal file-sharing continues on campus

9. Soaring energy costs fuel the use of ‘smart’ technologies in schools

With an oil and natural gas crisis predicted even before multiple hurricanes devastated many production areas in the Gulf Coast region, school leaders saw their already overtaxed budgets further threatened by the rising cost of fuel. These soaring costs put a serious strain on school budgets, prompting many school leaders to examine ways they could save.

To cut back on fuel expenses, many districts took steps aimed at addressing the habits of school bus drivers, such as setting policies that forbid the idling of buses while warming up or waiting for students. School systems also canceled or reduced the number of bus routes they ran, combined pick-up points for students, canceled transportation to extra-curricular events such as football games, and canceled most field trips altogether.

Technology played a significant part in these efforts, with some schools using geographic information system (GIS) software to better plan bus routes, as well as programs that help with inventories and preventive maintenance for the buses themselves.

But it wasn’t just expenses for school transportation programs at issue; the high cost of regulating their physical environments also has taken a toll on schools in the past year. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, America’s primary and secondary schools pay $6 billion annually for energy-related expenses. These costs include everything from heating and cooling their buildings, to the cost of the electricity used for running lights, vending machines, and computers, to flushing toilets and preparing student meals.

In response to spiraling energy costs, many school leaders have begun looking for sustainable, long-term solutions by using more energy-efficient lighting, computer-enhanced heating and cooling distribution systems, recycled materials that are more energy efficient, natural sunlight for school illumination, and even alternative energy sources.

In addition, many forward-looking school systems are designing or updating their buildings to reap environmental, economic, and social benefits. Many newly constructed or enhanced buildings also bring pedagogy into their building design, using standards set by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) for building certification that favor energy efficiency and ecologically friendly design …

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Soaring fuel costs threaten school budgets

Surviving soaring energy costs: Smart technologies and efficient design can prevent budget shock

8. Expansion of federal wiretapping law could siphon billions from schools

K-12 and higher-education institutions that use IP computer networks to transmit voice communications face the daunting prospect of having to renovate their existing networks so law-enforcement officials can conduct remote wiretaps, according to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) interpretation of an 11-year-old law known as the Communication Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA.

The law, intended to help catch terrorists and other criminals, originally was written with telephone carriers in mind. But thanks to the rapid evolution of the internet and other forms of digital communication, federal officials want to extend the law to cover broadband and voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) services as well.

Published to the Federal Register in late October, the FCC’s order met with heavy criticism from university lawyers and others in the education community, who estimate that the cost to colleges and universities alone could top $7 billion–while doing little to help the government apprehend suspected felons.

“The higher-education community is sympathetic to law enforcement’s need to access internet communications,” said Mark Luker, vice president of the nonprofit EDUCAUSE, a leading voice in the opposition to expanding CALEA. “However, we feel it is clear that Congress never intended CALEA to extend to the internet, and that the negative impact on the education and library community would far outweigh any benefit that law enforcement would gain by including them in this ruling.” EDUCAUSE was part of a coalition of university presidents, lobbyists, and other education stakeholders who filed comments with the FCC in November requesting an exemption to the law. School leaders will be watching carefully in the coming months to see how the FCC responds.

See this related story:

Coalition: Don’t send education $7 billion in wiretapping costs

7. Data theft plagues school IT networks

In March, Boston College officials warned 120,000 alumni that their personal information might have been stolen when an intruder hacked into a school computer containing the addresses and Social Security numbers of BC graduates.

A week later, a hacker infiltrated a computer server at the University Nevada, Las Vegas, and made off with records for thousands of international students, school officials said.

As if that weren’t enough, 59,000 people affiliated with California State University’s Chico campus had their Social Security numbers and other information swiped from a university computer. The incident marked the third high-profile case of identity theft reported on a major college campus in as many weeks.

Welcome to every chief information officer’s latest nightmare: What once was thought to be secure personal information, locked away in a digital database and password-protected for only privileged eyes to see, is now all too often finding its way into the public domain, forcing frustrated school IT staff to rethink how their institutions approach network security.

Not only are hackers breaking into networks and stealing sensitive information with more confidence, but they’re getting away with it–confounding authorities and disappearing into cyberspace without so much as a trace, officials say.

The fact that sensitive student data could be stolen at all is evidence of a changing landscape in network security–one that will require schools at all levels to reevaluate their strategies to maintain open and productive, but inherently safe, online communities.

“It’s a whole new territory for all of us,” George Mason University spokesman Daniel Walsch said. “It’s not a problem we had to worry about all that long ago.”

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Data theft plagues campus networks

6. Indiana paces school Linux use

Taking a huge step toward its goal of a computer for every high school student, Indiana introduced 1,600 new desktop computers running Linux-based operating systems and software in its classrooms last fall. The program is believed to be the largest such undertaking involving open-source software ever carried out in U.S. schools.

Indiana officials say using Linux-based systems will enable them to save what could amount to millions of dollars on operating systems and software. If successful, the state’s open-source initiative could serve as a model for other states or districts around the nation to follow.

Schools in South America, Australia, and other parts of the world already have implemented large-scale open-source software projects, but K-12 schools in the United States so far have been slower to adopt open-source solutions–particularly at the desktop level. Concerns about the expertise needed to support Linux and the range of educational applications that are available to run on it are some of the factors that have hindered its adoption in U.S. schools.

In response to these concerns, Kevin Carmony, chief executive officer of Linspire Inc., said his company’s offerings can perform at least 80 percent of the functions of most proprietary software.

Linspire offers an office suite, media software, and a number of other applications. Carmony said these applications are “completely interoperable” with proprietary solutions, answering concerns that schools will not be able to translate from one system to another in an environment where documents are exchanged between one kind of OS and another …

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Indiana paces school Linux use

(Editors’ note: Part 2 of this feature, in which we’ll count down the top five ed-tech stories of 2005, will appear online Jan. 5. Check back here then for a review of news that could change the face of one-to-one computing forever, a contentious debate over the future of science education, and more.)

Senior Editor Corey Murray, Assitant Editor Robert Brumfield, Assistant Editor Laura Ascione, and material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.