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.

Links:

Google Inc.
http://www.google.com

Justice Department
http://www.doj.gov

World Privacy Forum
http://www.worldprivacyforum.org

Electronic Privacy Information Center
http://www.epic.org

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District creates, sells own data tool

When Oak View Elementary School Principal Debbie Lane discovered her fourth-graders were struggling to pass a state-mandated exam on social studies skills, she didn’t panic; instead, she turned to her computer, and the district’s data warehouse, for answers.

The results were encouraging. Though students in Oak View were struggling, their counterparts in other schools across the district actually were performing well on the test, many even exceeding expectations, results showed.

Rather than scrap the school’s entire approach to teaching social studies and start over from scratch, Lane and her curriculum people instead used the data they culled from the district’s information system to reach out to schools that reportedly posted higher marks on the same test, exchanging best-practice solutions and asking for advice about how to improve the situation in Oak View.

“We looked around at the other schools in our neighborhood … and said, ‘OK, these two schools did fantastic,’ so we went and met with the teams over at these other schools,” Lane said. “What we found out was that they were using plays, songs, [and] working with art on specific objectives featured on the history test.”

After observing these and other seemingly effective teaching methods, Lane and her team returned to Oak View, where they put what they’d learned into practice.

“The next year, we scored 97 percent on the same test,” she said, “which is unbelievable.”

Lane attributes much of the success to her staff’s ability to find and replicate effective approaches being used in other schools around the district–a feat she says would have been difficult to accomplish were it not for FCPS’s Education Decision Support Library (EDSL), a customized data warehousing and reporting tool developed by engineers in the district’s Department of Instructional Technology.

Oak View is not alone. Across the district, administrators and teachers in more than 240 school buildings and offices use the system daily to help gauge student progress and measure academic success under NCLB.

One of the largest educational databases of its kind in the country, district officials say, EDSL reportedly contains some 18 million student records. The password-protected system enables approved administrators to perform school- and district-wide data searches, sort class and individual student performance data, and create color-coded graphs and other visual aides to determine how well schools are performing–and where they must improve–to be on par with state and federal guidelines.

“The reports you can get from EDSL are massive,” said Terri Newman, a former science teacher, whose role as Oak View’s School-Based Technology Specialist (SBTS) charges her with making sure teachers and faculty understand the technology. “It’s incredible the amount of data you can access.”

By enabling teachers to pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, Lane said, Fairfax County’s data warehouse–and the specially designed reporting tools that accompany it–give administrators the power to make more informed decisions, a necessity in the new era of accountability created by NCLB.

As principal, Lane said, it’s her responsibility to ensure that every student, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, measures up academically.

“The goal of EDSL is to provide a one-stop shop for all the data [educators] need to make decisions,” said Michael Carver, head of the district’s EDSL project.

The challenge, according to Carver, isn’t in collecting data, which many schools have done for years, but in finding new ways to harness the power of these databases so that educators can customize their instruction to better mesh with the unique needs of individual students.

In designing EDSL, Carver said, the district strove to make the system “as visual a possible.”

Why? “Because we know that the primary targeted audience for EDSL consists of principals. Principals are not data statisticians. Their job is to educate students,” he explained. “So we’ve tried to make it as easy as possible to get to the data, make [these data] very displayable in a graphical interface, and then [allow these] data [to] be shared with other staff members using other tools.”

Now in its second generation, the system’s latest version tracks practically every form of student information imaginable, including NCLB-mandated test scores, standard population and demographic information, overall student enrollment and marks, standardized test scores, special program enrollments, and special-education data.

“Even [in] some of our highest achieving schools, once [administrators] break [the data] down into subgroups, they start identifying issues,” said Maribeth Luftglass, the county’s chief information officer, “so it’s a great way to analyze the data and make adjustments to your curriculum.”

Using the system’s web-based interface, administrators can cross-reference the data to create color-coded graphs and other visual aids for use during important board meetings, staff training sessions, and parent conferences. The data then are used to highlight areas where students are doing well and to hone in on areas of weakness or concern.

“This is exactly what you can do with EDSL,” said Newman. “You can break [achievement] down in terms of ethnicity or gender and see where those groups are failing, so that you can realize this is an area we have to improve on because of No Child Left Behind.”

Before EDSL, Fairfax County relied primarily on special group meetings and handwritten reports to analyze student performance data and make instructional changes.

But educators say EDSL is helping to streamline that process, allowing them to waste less time on administrative tasks and devote more time to the classroom, where they can further apply their knowledge, and their skill, to foster progress.

The EDSL project has garnered so much attention in recent years that district officials now license the technology to other school systems throughout the state and across the nation, Luftglass said.

After FCPS officials spent close to three years developing a patent that would allow them to market the technology to other school systems, at least six other districts have purchased the technology to help them get a grip on NCLB reporting and reforms.

The goal, according to Luftglass, isn’t to turn a profit from the technology, but to continue to develop the system so that it meets the evolving needs of the district and its clients. “The money that comes in [from the sale of EDSL to other districts] goes back into our software development for enhancement,” she explained.

To help educators and administrators capitalize on the benefits of the EDSL tool, the district has implemented a training regimen through which dedicated technology specialists at each school train at least one teacher at every grade level to create and pull reports from the system. Principals also are trained individually on the technology, a practice that ensures the school system’s investment in the technology pays off.

“Data [are] wonderful, but what we are here for is educating individual students–so we try to use the data to look at the school level [and] at an individual student level and see what we can do for each … student to make [his or her] career here in Fairfax schools as successful as possible,” said ESOL Coordinator Teddi Predaris, who relies heavily on the technology to track the progress of English language learners.

And their efforts are working, says Lane.

Back at Oak View, administrators currently link the EDSL database with another district-wide system, called the Benchmark Assessment and Reporting Tool, or BART, to determine what groups of students need additional help to pass state assessments.

“What we are concerned about … are our groupings,” Lane explained. “We are one of the schools at risk for not making [Adequate Yearly Progress] due to our African-American, special-ed, and free and reduced-price lunch kids.”

By using EDSL and other online resources to focus on those areas where students need the most help, Lane said, the hope is that educators will keep Oak View and other schools throughout the district from falling behind.

Links:

Fairfax County Public Schools
http://www.fcps.k12.va.us/index.shtml

FCPS: Education Decision Support System
http://www.fcps.edu/DIT/edsl/

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Study: Most college students lack skills

The Associated Press reports that in a first-of-its-kind survey, it was found that most college students cannot handle many complex, but common tasks such as understanding credit card offers or comparing the cost per ounce of food. The study of literacy on college campuses targeted the skills of students as they approach the start of their careers…

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Calif. students on the cutting edge

The Red Bluff Daily News reports that Maywood Middle School in Red Bluff, California officially opened a new computer lab named “EAST,” which stands for Environmental and Spatial Technology. The lab is student-centered, students installed the lab, they run and maintain it, and work through problems that arise while inside it. The lab is outfitted with cutting edge software, including: virtual reality, a global positioning system, film editing software and the latest edition of Photoshop…

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UK’s tech investment swells

The Guardian Unlimited reports that according to the Department for Education and Skills, ICT (Information and Communications Technology) spending for schools has more than doubled since 1998. Andrew Adonis, the Schools Minister, announced last fall 125 million pounds of new money for schools to spend on educational software over the next two years…

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District creates, sells own data tool

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) officials have built their own decision support tool that helps educators analyze the performance of schools, subgroups, and individual students, allowing educators to tailor their instruction accordingly to ensure that all students succeed under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The results have been so encouraging that district officials have patented the technology and now sell it to other school systems to offset the costs of its development.

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Vatican newspaper backs ID decision

The New York Times reports that the official newspaper of the Vatican–L’Osservatore Romano–published an article this week labeling as “correct” the recent decision by a Pennsylvania judge that intelligent design should not be taught as an alternative to evolution. However, the article was not presented as an official church position … (Note: This site requires free registration)

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Virtual schools offer clubs, field trips

To counter the concerns that online instruction deprives students of close peer-to-peer interaction and other forms of socialization, a growing number of virtual-school programs are offering virtual “clubs” for participating students and organizing field trips that place students in the physical company of their online peers.

Julie Young, president and chief administrative officer of the Florida Virtual School (FVLS), a provider of supplemental and full-time virtual instruction to students in Florida and internationally, said many of the social activities that students take part in through her organization mirror those of the contemporary work force.

“Meeting online is a common occurrence in today’s workplace. By [participating in] virtual clubs, [students] can further develop their 21st-century communications skills and diversify their online learning experience with real-life collaboration and exercises,” Young said. FLVS launched the first of its seven virtual student clubs with about 50 students in 1998. The school chose a format that emulates its regular online classroom environment, which permits live chats, academic club-related content, and interactive whiteboard sessions in a secure online environment.

The FLVS Science Club is open to all students enrolled in courses at FLVS–not just science students. As a member of the FLVS Science Club, students participate in Earth Day activities, attend local science fairs, write articles about environmental issues, and participate in field trips and competitions. For the past five years, Science Club teams have competed at the Florida State Science Olympiad; last year, FLVS teams won second place in the bottle rockets competition and third place in the airplanes competition.

“What’s most amazing is that FLVS students do not meet face to face before any of the activities or competitions. All their preparations are completed virtually, and it’s not until the day of the competition that they actually sit down in the same room,” said Mary Mitchell, FLVS teacher and advisor to the Science Club. “Their ability to communicate and collaborate virtually has proven successful, because club teams have a consistent record of winning awards each year.”

She added, “People don’t always understand how we could participate in competitions successfully at state and national levels. We’ve had no problem with that.”

Mitchell noted that her students collaborate easily on projects and build structures at a distance, noting the parallel to the current-day work world.

“They send ideas around to each other and engineer the structure, then one or two will work together to build the airplane or bridge for the competition,” she said. “That is really the way that the real-life corporate world works today. A company’s engineers are scattered everywhere, and they collaborate virtually and get the work done.”

Mitchell also noted that some students probably would not have chosen to work together in a traditional school environment, because they would have based their opinion of each other on appearance, rather than what each student had to offer the team.

“It takes away all of those … stereotypes, and becomes based on what [students] have to offer each other,” Mitchell said of participation in the “virtual” club.

FLVS also offers a newspaper club, which collaborates online to produce two student newspapers a month; competitive computer science and Latin clubs, which offer students the opportunity to collaborate online and in person; and the FLVS Cyber Scholar Charter of the National English Honors Society, which will hold its first membership induction ceremony later this month.

While providers of other virtual schools might not offer the extensive extra-curricular activities of FLVS, all those interviewed by eSchool News said they offer some virtual clubs, regular meetings with teachers, and field trips intended to be educational and to bring students into the company of other students.

“Some would argue that virtual schools do not provide social outlets,” said Jeff Kwitowski, director of public relations for K12 Inc., a provider of supplemental and comprehensive statewide virtual schooling to several U.S. states. “We provide a number of them. Extra-curricular activities are built into our program. Some are designed by teachers for their students, but they’re usually open to students across the state, no matter where they live.”

Kwitowski said these include both online and face-to-face writing and math workshops, day-long student expos and education showcases, and trips to museums and historical sites in any given student area. He said students, teachers, parents, and volunteers all take part in the programs.

“This is a campus that is, in effect, statewide for some [students],” he said, addressing what he called the “myth” that students who participate in virtual schooling are isolated from their peers. Given the scope of teacher, parent, and volunteer participation, he said, “we feel that our statewide programs, in effect, work in much the same way as a traditional school board.”

Connections Academy is a provider of virtual schooling for 13 states, including one virtual public charter school recently added in Oregon. The Connections Academy principal for Oregon, Jim Thomas, said many of his students are working out of their home with their learning coach, often a parent or close relative, and are perceived as being isolated.

“In Oregon, community coordinators throughout the state work with students locally, in various areas, to set up a variety of social and academic activities,” Thomas said.

Though the Oregon Connections Academy program has just begun, administrators say official, statewide chess and Spanish-language clubs, as well as a student yearbook, are set to start before the semester’s end. In addition, community coordinators work throughout the state to organize clubs and activities on a local level.

One community coordinator, Kelly Steele, discussed with eSchool News her decision to place her daughter in the Connections Academy program, and her role as a community coordinator in the Portland area.

“Let’s just say that the social opportunities provided to my daughter in the one year we sent her to public middle school were not ones we wanted our sixth-grader to be taking advantage of,” Steele said.

Steele said that, as community coordinator, she makes use of her engineering background to promote math and science student activities in her area.

“We just had a huge field trip to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry; we set up paleontology labs for three different age groups,” she said. “We’ve got [the Smithsonian Institution’s] touring Lewis and Clark exhibit here for a few months. We’re going to make it there. I’m in talks with the Portland Opera, and they’re going to let us go to a dress rehearsal for free. … In the spring, I’m going to take them out to the full-scale model of Stonehenge out in the [Columbia River] Gorge.”

Steele said the academy’s students also take part in secure, password-protected message boards that are further regulated by monitors. Students also vote on, read, and discuss books in a book club that meets virtually every six weeks. She said that there are local and national Connections Academy newsletters for which students can write, and a program wherein students write letters for military troops overseas.

In addition to these academic endeavors, Steele also is working to organize more traditional social events for Portland-area Connections Academy students.

“We also started social gatherings once a month for sixth- through eighth-graders. We do skating, pizza parties. We’re having a dance this spring for the middle-school kids,” she said.

Steele noted that, as with traditional classroom-based education systems, a lot depends on the parents.

“We always considered the school as the base, and we add on to what it offers,” she said. “I am diversifying these little people.”

Links:

Florida Virtual School
http://www.flvs.net

K12 Inc.
http://www.k12.com

Connections Academy
http://www.connectionsacademy.com

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Grant helps teachers keep pace with technology

The Chicago Sun-Times writes that because colleges are being squeezed like never before by funding cuts, a group of private colleges in Illinois is using a grant from a charitable arm of SBC, newly renamed AT&T, to make sure teachers receive practical technology training that they can apply in the classroom. While the phone company has had to cut its grant in the past decade, Jerry Fuller, executive director of the Associated Colleges of Illinois, commends them for sticking with the program…

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Students want operator to settle claims

The Associated Press reports that students who have been sued by recording industry are demanding that the now defunct file-sharing network, i2hub settle their copyright-infringement claims. Attorneys with the Student Legal Services Office claim that the service placed ads on the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s campus to trick students into thinking that the university approved the software. At least 42 students have been named as defendants…

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