Top 10 ed-tech stories of 2005, Part 1

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.

See these related stories:

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 …

See these related stories:

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.”

See this related story:

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 …

See this related story:

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.


More S.D. students taking classes online reports that South Dakota’s public universities delivered 36 percent more credit hours electronically than in the previous year. Officials belive that traditional and nontraditional demands on students time help to explain the rise…


Students face big changes in New Orleans

The New York Times reports that those students who have ventured back to New Orleans face a drastically changed educational landscape. The school system is much smaller and is now dominated by charter schools in the same buildings where traditional schools one stood…


iPod teaching on the rise

The Hartfort Courant reports that Professor David B. Miller of the University of Connecticut is recording group study sessions from his psychology classes and offering them to his students as free podcasts…


“Raid on Deerfield” sheds light on a forgotten piece of history

“In the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 29, 1704, a force of about 300 French and Native allies launched a daring raid on the English settlement of Deerfield, Mass., situated in the Pocumtuck homeland.”When the fighting stopped, 112 Deerfield men, women, and children were captured and taken on a 300-mile march to Canada. Some of the captives later returned to Deerfield, but one-third chose to remain among their French and Native captors. The little-known story of these men and women is the focus of “The Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704,”a new educational web site from the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association and Memorial Hall Museum. Was this dramatic pre-dawn assault in contested lands an unprovoked, brutal attack on an innocent village of English settlers? Was it a justified military action against a stockaded settlement in a Native homeland? Or was it something else? The answer to all of these questions could be “yes,”depending on your point of view. And that’s the notable thing about this site: It tells the story from all three viewpoints and lets students decide. In the process, students will come to understand that history is a story with several perspectives. In addition to the site’s many interactive features–including personal profiles of survivors, artifacts, historical maps, timelines, and the voices and songs of those who were there–the site also features a teacher’s guide designed to help educators frame historical lessons around the conflict, a glossary of terms, and links to other teaching resources.


Bricks v. Clicks in Pa. funding fight

Pennsylvania state lawmakers are looking to revise a funding formula that reportedly allows the state’s 12 cyber charter schools to pocket more money than their expenses–a formula that has been sore spot with school districts since it was implemented in 2000.

Parents of cyber-school students do not pay tuition. Rather, the public school district where the student lives pays tuition with state and local tax money through a state formula.

State Rep. Jess Stairs, who chairs the House Education Committee, said he will hold hearings this year to review the equation.

“We have to make sure [these schools] are not making a windfall off the people of Pennsylvania. The districts should be billed on what the actual costs are,” Stairs, R-Westmoreland, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for a story in December.

Officials at Pennsylvania’s cyber schools say changing the formula will hurt their more than 10,000 students. But public school superintendents counter that the formula hurts their students, too.

Students who attend cyber schools are linked to their classrooms via computer. Cyber schools do not incur costs for transportation and athletics, and they do not need to maintain large school buildings.

Operators of cyber schools have acknowledged that the fees they receive under the state formula are “many times larger than the cyber schools’ actual costs,” according to Thomas J. Gentzel, executive director of the Pennsylvania Schools Boards Association (PSBA).

Nick Trombetta, who serves dual roles as chief administrative officer of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Midland, Pa., and superintendent of the Midland Borough School District, doesn’t dispute that.

“We create jobs and opportunity,” he said.

The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School expects $30 million in tuition revenue this year for 4,500 students in Pennsylvania and another 3,000 students in Ohio, New Mexico, and Arizona, said Trombetta.

The school receives $5,409 to $15,204 per student, based on tuition in the student’s home district. That tuition money is helping to finance a $23.5 million performing arts center along Midland’s main street.

Such an investment proves “that these folks are making dollars hand over fist,” said Tim Allwein, PSBA’s assistant executive director.

In 2001, PSBA challenged the legality of the state’s cyber charter schools in court, arguing the schools were educating mostly home-schooled children at the expense of local school districts.

The court dismissed the case, but it handed the state’s school districts a partial victory by saying districts should have the opportunity to question tuition bills sent to them by cyber charter schools. Similar lawsuits also have failed in Wisconsin.

In 2002, Pennsylvania passed a law to partially reimburse the state’s school systems for per-pupil funding lost when students enroll in alternative schools. The law also transferred authority for the establishment, evaluation, and renewal of cyber charter schools from local school districts to the state education department, thereby tightening accountability for the online schools.

The Freedom School District in Beaver County, Pa., pays between $40,000 and $60,000 a year for students to attend various cyber schools, Superintendent Ronald Sofo said.

“Many of us are sending more money to these schools than what it costs to educate the students,” he said. “Local taxpayers should be outraged that local tax dollars are flowing between school districts this way.”

But the schools are growing in popularity.

In Lancaster County, Pa., the Columbia Borough School District saw cyber school costs increase from $18,000 in 2001-02 to $116,000 last year, said business manager Laura Cowburn.

And in Chester County, Jim Hanak, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School, said he expects enrollment to double next year–to more than 2,400. The school opened in September with 340 students.

“We built the better mousetrap,” he said.


Pennsylvania General Assembly

Pennsylvania Schools Boards Association


Students get access to classes statewide

The Mobile Register reports that 46 Alabama schools received the ACCESS (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators and Students Statewide) technology grant. Officials hope ACCESS will one day allow students throughout the state to take unique electives and advanced courses offered elsewhere in the state, according to the State Department of Education… (Note: This site requires filling out a survey.)


Laptop plan engenders educators’ comments reports that some South Dakota educators say they would prefer to make their own decisions about technology spending. Reacting to a three-year, $39 million proposal to provide laptop computers to all students, some schools would prefer to spend the money in other ways…


Technology infused education

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that at the suburban Rancho Bernardo High School, students don’t take tests or write papers. Instead, they use the latest technology to produce documentaries, books and presentations. The charter school is attracting millions of dollars from entrepreneurs and philanthropists…