Disney purchases Pixar

News.com reports that the Walt Disney Company announced that it is paying $7.4 million in stock to purchase Pixar Animation Studios. The deal puts Apple CEO Steve Jobs on Disney’s board of directors. Pixar shareholders will receive 2.3 Disney shares for every share of Pixar stock they own, making Jobs the largest individual Disney shareholder…


Gov. Bush: Give teachers laptops

The Miami Herald reports that Florida Governor Jeb Bush unveiled a $237 million plan to recruit and retain educators. Under the plan, all of the states nearly 164,000 teachers would receive laptop computers. The proposal also calls for the creation of an education minor at the state’s universities, $48 million for signing bonuses, student loans, and housing assistance payments… (Note: This site requires free registration)


Wikis test students’ research skills

The rise of Wikipedia and other communally aggregated reference materials on the internet has created a new set of challenges for educators: How accurate or reliable are these sources for student research, and what kind of policies should educators set regarding their use?

The emergence of Wikipedia and other similar online reference tools is too recent a phenomenon for most educators who spoke with eSchool News to have formed clear policies that address these sites, and opinions vary widely as to how useful or reliable such tools are for student research. But the educators we spoke with did agree on one thing: No matter what approach schools take, the use of these resources and their growing popularity underscore the need for students to learn and practice solid information-literacy skills.

“Wikis” are collaborative web sites that represent the ongoing, collective work of many authors. Similar to a blog in structure and logic, a wiki allows anyone to edit, delete, or modify content that has been placed on a site–including the work of previous authors–using only a browser interface.

The most popular and well-known of these sites is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that allows anyone to post a new entry or edit a previously existing one. Drawing on the knowledge and experience of a vast community of users, Wikipedia boasts approximately 3.2 million articles in more than 200 languages. Since its launch in 2001, it has grown into a clearinghouse of free information on topics ranging from medieval art to nanotechnology.

But critics say its strength–the fact that anyone can post or edit a listing–is also its greatest weakness. Unlike content published in newspapers, books, and other traditional media, Wikipedia material can be submitted by just about anyone, regardless of his or her knowledge of the subject matter–and often without having to volunteer any identifying information.

This lack of accountability was demonstrated in November when John Seigenthaler, a one-time administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy, complained in an op-ed piece published in USA Today that a biography of him on Wikipedia claimed he had been suspected in the assassinations of the former attorney general and his brother, President John F. Kennedy. The erroneous, even slanderous, information reportedly appeared on the site for about four months before it was removed.

Less than a week after Seigenthaler’s op-ed piece was published, Wikipedia tightened its submission policy. The site now requires users to register before they can create articles, said Jimmy Wales, founder of the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based service. But site visitors still will be able to edit content already posted without registering.

Wales said he hopes the new registration requirement will limit the number of articles being created. While it won’t prevent people from posting false information, the new process will make it easier, he said, for the site’s 600 active volunteers to review and remove factual errors, slanderous statements, and other material that runs afoul of Wikipedia policy.

The Seigenthaler episode notwithstanding, such errors appear to be the exception rather than the rule–at least when it comes to science. In a side-by-side comparison of articles covering a broad swath of the scientific spectrum, Wikipedia was about as accurate in covering scientific topics as Encyclopedia Britannica, according to an article published Dec. 14 by the journal Nature (See related story: Study: Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica–at least on science).

Traditionalists, however, remain skeptical of Wikipedia’s reliability as a reference source.

Linda Williams, president of the American Association of School Librarians, says communal online resources such as Wikipedia “aren’t acceptable resources for students–but perhaps they will be in the future.”

Yet, for educators, the challenge isn’t going away any time soon. According to the web traffic rankings site Alexa.com, Wikipedia ranks second in popularity among all reference sites, trailing only Yahoo and ahead of popular resources such as MapQuest and Encyclopedia Britannica Online. What’s more, Wikipedia is the 37th most visited web site overall, Alexa says.

Instead of pretending that Wikipedia and similar sites don’t exist, experts say it’s important to help students understand and practice good research habits.

Educators need to teach students “how to evaluate information in all respects,” said Della Curtis, coordinator of the Office of Library Information Services for Baltimore County Public Schools. Curtis said students need help in distinguishing between sources, and part of being a “knowledge worker” is teaching them what the most appropriate sources are and helping them determine the reliability of sources.

Tom Hoffman, a former teacher who maintains a blog in the Ed-Tech Insider section of eSchool News Online, believes that a few “old-school” skills are necessary to help evaluate these types of online resources: close reading and the use of multiple sources.

Students should be taught not to rely too much on a single source and to cross-reference sources against each other, Hoffman explained. He also said educators “don’t stress careful, close reading of text as much as we should,” and he notes that students should be careful to check the editing history of entries posted on sources such as Wikipedia.

Will Richardson, supervisor of instructional technology at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey and another Ed-Tech Insider for eSN Online, summed up the dilemma facing educators in a blog entry posted last fall:

“Our whole concepts of accuracy and trust and truth are being challenged and redefined. This feels like a huge shift for educators,” Richardson wrote. “I don’t think we can fight these changes; the question becomes, how do we best navigate them?”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

See also: Study: Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica–at least on science




American Association of School Librarians

Baltimore County Public Schools

eSN Online Ed-Tech Insiders


Can video iPod lead to DMCA reform?

News.com writes that a serious shortcoming of the new video iPod is that users can’t load DVDs that they have already purchased onto the machine. The Digital Media Consumer’s right act, has long been known by the tech-savvy to introduce consumer use problems with digital media. However, the ubiquity and utility of the iPod might cause consumers to feel the pinch and affect change…


BlackBerry suit threatens school service

In a case that could pose significant complications for school leaders and other users of the popular BlackBerry wireless eMail device, the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday refused to hear an appeal from the device’s maker in a long-running patent dispute.

The high court’s refusal to hear Canada-based Research In Motion Ltd.’s (RIM’s) appeal means that a trial judge in Richmond, Va., could impose an injunction against the company and block BlackBerry use among owners of the device the United States, including administrators, teachers, and students in many schools and districts.

The justices had been asked to decide on whether U.S. patent law is technologically out of date in the age of the internet and the global marketplace. The court’s refusal to hear the BlackBerry lawsuit was disappointing to those who sought clarification on an increasingly thorny aspect of law–namely, patent claims, in which excessive litigation threatens innovation and ultimately hurts consumers (see story: ‘Submarine patents’ menace innovation).

The court’s decision not to rule also could have considerable implications for the more than 3.3 million people who subscribe to BlackBerry’s services in the United States.

Though RIM does not break down its sales figures by industry, BlackBerry devices have been cropping up in schools with increasingly frequency in recent years.

In 2002, the Miami Dade County Public Schools in Florida, reportedly the nation’s fourth largest K-12 school system, purchased 150 of the devices for administrators to communicate with one another in the event of an emergency.

Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, has used his BlackBerry device to write personal responses to potential fundraisers and donors across the district, according to published reports. And schools such as the University of Maryland, College Park, and American University in Washington, D.C., also have experimented with the technology, using the handheld devices to bolster communication among students, teachers, and mentors in undergraduate business programs, for example.

But experts following the case say these and other initiatives could be in jeopardy, given the most recent developments.

At issue is how U.S. law applies to technology that is used in a foreign country and allegedly infringes on the intellectual property rights of a patent-holder in the United States.

The justices were asked to decide whether RIM can be held liable for patent infringement when its main relay station for eMail and data transmission is located in Waterloo, Ontario, outside U.S. borders.

RIM was challenging a ruling by a federal appeals court that found the company had infringed on the patents held by NTP Inc., a tiny northern Virginia patent-holding firm, because RIM’s customers use the BlackBerry inside U.S. borders. The panel said it did not matter where the relay station is located.

Attorney Kevin Anderson, who represents NTP, said the firm is pleased with the court’s action. “We think the Supreme Court’s rejection of RIM’s position makes it clear that RIM should stop defying the U.S. legal system,” he said.

RIM sought to play down the significance of the court’s rejection. “RIM has consistently acknowledged that Supreme Court review is granted in only a small percentage of cases, and we were not banking on Supreme Court review,” said Mark Guibert, RIM’s vice president for corporate marketing. “RIM’s legal arguments for the District Court remain strong, and our software workaround designs remain a solid contingency.”

Since its introduction in 1999, the BlackBerry has revolutionized electronic communication, allowing educators and others to stay in constant eMail contact with their offices, students, and staff members while away from their desktop computers. It has proved especially handy for executive educators, because it has allowed busy school district administrators to keep in contact with each other while moving from building to building.

The BlackBerry almost instantaneously transmits data through radio-frequency technology that Thomas Campana Jr., an engineer, says he developed in 1990, long before the internet became an integral part of American life.

The dispute has resonated not only with BlackBerry-using educators who worry that the lifeline to their offices could be severed. The U.S. and Canadian governments also are concerned, as is Intel Corp., the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer.

U.S. officials worry about the loss of BlackBerry use for law enforcement and health workers in a crisis, while the Canadian government is concerned that research and development in other industries will be stifled if RIM loses on all fronts.

In a filing with the Supreme Court, Intel’s lawyers said the company is torn. As an investor of billions of dollars into research and development, the company is among the nation’s leaders in obtaining patents and wants to protect itself against infringement. At the same time, Intel also is frequently accused of infringement and wants clearer rules that protect it from small patent-holding companies that have little infrastructure and produce no products.

Attorney Herbert L. Fenster, who represents RIM, said the company is fighting the injunction. But he said an injunction would not end BlackBerry use among at least 1 million of its 3 million users in the United States.

Fenster said he believes federal law prohibits U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer from cutting off BlackBerry service to federal, state and local government users and others who rely on the devices to communicate during a public emergency. Whether this exception would apply to public-school employees was unclear at press time.

Spencer has set a Feb. 1 deadline for filings on the injunction issue.

The legal fight began in 2001, when NTP sued RIM for infringement. The next year, a jury in Richmond decided that RIM had infringed on patents held by NTP, awarding the company 5.7 percent of U.S. BlackBerry sales. Spencer later increased that rate to 8.55 percent. At last count, the tally of damages and fees had exceeded $200 million, and it continues to grow.

In a court filing last week, NTP said it was willing to resolve the matter if RIM were to pay it the original 5.7 percent royalty fee, Anderson said.

Last year, attempts to resolve the case fell apart when Spencer disapproved a settlement in which RIM would have paid $450 million to NTP.

The case is RIM v. NTP, 05-763.


Research In Motion Ltd.

BlackBerry product web site

‘Submarine patents’ menace innovation


School district experiences cyber-bullying

The Daily Journal.com reports that the Vineland School District of New Jersey has faced a handful of cases involving internet bullying in the past three years. A student dispatched an email threatening to harm another student for attending the prom, one threatened to blow up the school, and another posted a “hit list” of other students online. In each instance, officials were able to work with police to both eliminate the danger and prosecute the offender…


Undergrads play hooky when notes go online

The Chicago Tribune reports that some professors are pulling online materials after witnessing a spike in absenteeism. As many academics are embracing technology, some are pushing back–to avoid the temptation to over rely on technology, rather than attending classes and lectures…


College aid plan widens U.S. role in high schools

The New York Times reports that for the first time, the United States government will rate the academic rigor of the nation’s 18,000 high schools. The five-year, $3.75 billion initiative was tucked into the budget bill last month. The measure would provide grants to low-income college freshman and sophomores who have completed a “rigorous secondary school program of study”… Note: This site requires free registration)


Tech enables creative learning environments

The Guardian Unlimited writes that because the average teen carries over £500 worth of technology, students are increasingly developing a mindset about education that broadens the boundaries of where and how lessons can take place. Over time, education will become seamless and location becomes less and less important…


Feds want Google search records

A battle under way between internet-search giant Google Inc. and the federal government could have huge implications for online privacy on one hand and the government’s ability to regulate access to what it considers objectionable on the other. A government effort to revive the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA), ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, is behind the current court fight.

Google Inc. is rebuffing the Bush administration’s demand for access to what millions of people have been looking up on the internet’s leading search engine–a request that underscores the potential for online databases to become tools for government surveillance.

The Bush administration says it wants the information to determine how often pornography shows up in online searches as part of an effort to revive COPA. The act was struck down two years ago. But since then, the composition of the high court has changed, making it unclear how the Justices might rule now.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Google has refused to comply with a federal subpoena first issued last summer, prompting U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last week to ask a federal judge in San Jose to order Google to hand over the records.

The U.S. Department of Justice (JD) wants a list of all the search terms users typed into Google’s search engine during an unspecified single week–a breakdown that could conceivably span tens of millions of queries. In addition, federal investigators seek 1 million randomly selected web addresses from various Google databases.

In court papers the San Jose Mercury News reported on after seeing them Jan. 18, the Bush administration depicts the information as vital in its effort to restore COPA.

The rejected law would have required adults to use access codes or other ways of registering before they could see online material deemed objectionable, and it would have punished violators with fines up to $50,000 or jail time. The high court ruled that technology such as filtering software might protect children better.

The matter is now before a federal court in Pennsylvania, and the government wants the Google data to help argue that the law is more effective than software in protecting children from online porn.

Google told the Mercury News that it opposes releasing the information because it would violate the privacy rights of its users and would reveal company trade secrets.

Nicole Wong, an associate general counsel for Google, said the company will fight the government’s efforts “vigorously.”

“Google is not a party to this lawsuit, and the demand for the information is overreaching,” Wong said.

Yahoo Inc., which runs the internet’s second-most used search engine behind Google, confirmed Jan. 19 that it had complied with a similar government subpoena.

Although the government says it isn’t seeking any data that tie personal information to search requests, the subpoena still raises serious privacy concerns, experts said. Those worries have been magnified by recent revelations that the White House authorized eavesdropping on U.S. civilian communications after the Sept. 11 attacks without obtaining court approval.

“Search engines now play such an important part in our daily lives that many people probably contact Google more often than they do their own mother,” said Thomas Burke, a San Francisco attorney who has handled several prominent cases involving privacy issues.

“Just as most people would be upset if the government wanted to know how much you called your mother and what you talked about, they should be upset about this, too.”

The content of search requests sometimes contains information about the person making the query.

For instance, it’s not unusual for search requests to include names, medical profiles, or Social Security information, said Pam Dixon, executive director for the World Privacy Forum.

“This is exactly the kind of thing we have been worrying about with search engines for some time,” Dixon said. “Google should be commended for fighting this.”

Every other search engine served similar subpoenas by the Bush administration has complied so far, according to court documents. The cooperating search engines weren’t identified in the documents.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo stressed that it didn’t reveal any personal information. “We are rigorous defenders of our users’ privacy,” Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako said Jan. 19. “In our opinion, this is not a privacy issue.”

Microsoft Corp.’s MSN, the No. 3 search engine, declined to say whether it even received a similar subpoena. “MSN works closely with law enforcement officials worldwide to assist them when requested,” the company said in a statement.

As the internet’s dominant search engine, Google has built up a valuable storehouse of information that “makes it a very attractive target for law enforcement,” said Chris Hoofnagle, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The Justice Department argues that Google’s cooperation is essential in its effort to simulate how people navigate the web.

In the COPA case in Pennsylvania, the Bush administration is trying to prove that internet filters don’t do an adequate job of preventing children from accessing online pornography and other objectionable destinations.

Obtaining the subpoenaed information from Google “would assist the government in its efforts to understand the behavior of current web users, [and] to estimate how often web users encounter harmful-to-minors material in the course of their searches,” JD wrote in a brief filed Jan. 18.

Google–whose motto when it went public in 2004 was “do no evil”–contends that submitting to the subpoena would represent a betrayal of its users, even if all personal information is stripped from the search terms sought by the government.

“Google’s acceding to the request would suggest that it is willing to reveal information about those who use its services. This is not a perception that Google can accept,” company attorney Ashok Ramani wrote in a letter included in the government’s filing.

Complying with the subpoena also wound threaten to expose some of Google’s “crown-jewel trade secrets,” Ramani wrote. Google is particularly concerned that the information could be used to deduce the size of its index and how many computers it uses to crunch the requests.

“This information would be highly valuable to competitors or miscreants seeking to harm Google’s business,” Ramani wrote.

Dixon is hoping Google’s battle with the government reminds people to be careful how they interact with search engines.

“When you are looking at that blank search box, you should remember that what you fill can come back to haunt you unless you take precautions,” she said.


Google Inc.

Justice Department

World Privacy Forum

Electronic Privacy Information Center