CoCo helps diverse devices talk to each other

Virginia’s Prince William County Public Schools are piloting a new type of software that aims to permit communication across a wide range of devices that school systems already have–including cell phones, two-way radios, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and even video cameras. If the software works as intended, it could improve emergency preparedness by creating secure, multi-platform lines of communication between school campuses and federal, state, and local first responders.

The purchase of the CoCo protocol software from CoCo Communications Corp. was funded by a one-time grant of $246,661 earmarked by Congress and funded through the U.S. Department of Justice (JD).

The pilot project is meant to demonstrate that wired, wireless voice, and data network hardware already in place in public schools and used by first responders in emergency situations can be cost-effectively modified with software to become interoperable. The CoCo network–named for the Cryptographic Overlay Mesh Protocol (COMP) on which it is based–is intended to enable better real-time communication among school administrators, staff, and emergency first responders via a secure network that uses a school system’s existing communications infrastructure.

The deployment of the CoCo software is expected to make Prince William County a national model for facilitating first-responder communications with schools. The pilot is intended as a first step toward establishing a National School Protection Network as proposed by JD. Federal government officials hope the project will encourage schools around the country to improve their emergency preparedness and campus security through new advanced communication technology.

“The security of our students is our most important charge, so deploying the technology endorsed by [JD] was an easy decision once we understood its utility and benefits,” said Prince William County Superintendent Steven Walts. “This technology made possible by CoCo Communications gives schools the ability to ensure secure links between schools and public safety officials.”

The company says the CoCo protocol that permits secure cross-platform interoperability of communications devices was developed as a response to solving the communications problems encountered at the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.

The communications are processed through a dedicated server in Prince William County. Device-specific versions of the CoCo software are loaded onto district and emergency communications devices and are used to carry out a protocol translation that enables communication among these various devices. The underlying protocols of each device become mute if the enabling networks are loaded with the software overlay.

“Access to the system can be granted by the district to any organization or individual,” said Steve George, director of information technology for the Prince William County Public Schools. “At that point, the user can pick up a PDA and make a secure connection to the video server through the application running on the device.”

George said first responders in an emergency can use their own hardware devices loaded with the CoCo software to view video from cameras inside the school building and to communicate with school officials.

CoCo says its protocol does not conform to conventional “stack” or open system interconnection (ISO) programming models, which allow for security breaches on the network level and do not lend themselves easily to protocol interoperability. The CoCo protocol instead was engineered using cryptography to command nearly every system, according to the company. The software reportedly allows for quality-of-service controls, network scaling properties, and programming that prioritizes access to the network.

CoCo Communications’ software is similar to technologies collectively known as mesh, ad-hoc, or peer-to-peer networking, but the company says the programming that defines the CoCo protocol is distinct. Like peer-to-peer technologies, instead of depleting the network’s operating capacity when you add new devices, the software creates a mesh in which every device that accesses the network adds to its infrastructure, acting as its own router. The company says the network gets larger as more users come online. Traditional networks have capacities that eventually are filled as users log onto the network.

The CoCo technology is being tested in four schools in the Manassas, Va., area. A deployment of the software also is underway at Seattle’s Franklin High School.

See these related links:

Prince William County Public Schools
http://www.pwcs.edu

CoCo Communications Corp.
http://www.cococorp.com

U.S. Department of Justice
http://www.usdoj.gov

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Make scientific concepts come alive with these free 3D images

Teachers and students looking for images to make scientific concepts come alive can take advantage of Zygote Media Group’s free 3D clip art at 3DScience.com, an online marketplace and community dedicated to scientific visualization. Visitors to the site can see various visual depictions of medical and scientific phenomena, including the Avian Bird Flu virus and the HIV virus. The site’s low-resolution images are available free of charge and are well suited for use online or in PowerPoint presentations. High-resolution images, ideal for reproduction in print media, are available at a discounted rate for educators. “Educational institutions across the globe … want the best resources available to provide the highest quality education possible at an affordable cost structure,” said Bryan Brandenburg, chief executive officer of Zygote Media Group. “3DScience.com hopes to help by continuously providing the best human anatomy and scientific visualization to educators and students at the lowest prices.” Through a new academic licensing program, schools and other learning institutions also will receive a 30-percent discount on Zygote’s 3D human anatomy collections, the company said.

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Celebrate Black History Month with these internet materials from Thomson Gale

In recognition of Black History Month, Thompson Gale has launched a free web site full of historical facts and figures, biographies, web links, and teaching tools. The site is intended to help students, teachers, and families commemorate black history. Each week during February, Thompson Gale will post a new quiz to test knowledge of significant people and events. Weekly quiz winners will receive Thompson Gale books for their school library. Activities for all children, taken from Thompson Gale’s Black History Month Resource Book, are available on the site, arranged by age, and include art projects and games. The site’s “Biography” section includes figures such as Rosa Parks, Oprah Winfrey, and Barak Obama. Each biography gives detailed information about some of the world’s most notable African Americans, including birth date and location, personal life and career, and avenues for further research. Books about the Civil War, slavery, civil rights leaders, and Malcom X also are referenced on the web site. A timeline takes visitors through nearly 400 years of black history and commemorates notable events such as Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the abolition of slavery.

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New online resource aims to spur healthier choices among students

Each day more than 4,000 children try smoking, the percentage of kids who are overweight has nearly tripled in the last two decades, and health education budgets are being downsized, according to the Susan P. Byrnes Health Education Center, a nonprofit organization located in York, Pa. For these reasons, the center has launched LearntobeHealthy.org, a free, online health education resource designed to help teachers communicate important health concepts to students in grades K-6. The site’s health education programs include lesson plans, interactive games, group and self-directed activities, health assessments, and supplemental material. The program reportedly meets state and national health and technology standards. Simon, Tuffy Tooth, Cig Shady, and many other characters guide teachers and students through education kits that currently cover five specific health and science-related topics: the five senses, tobacco and inhalants, adolescence, dental health, and healthy eating. Each kit uses animation, graphics, and sound effects to make learning fun and contains up to 11 activities to introduce and/or reinforce concepts, presented in a variety of delivery methods to address diverse learning styles. Teachers also will have the opportunity to incorporate cross-curricular assignments in writing, math, and science, extending learning beyond the online activities.

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ED offers revised guide to international collaboration online

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) and iEARN-USA have announced a newly revised online resource to help teachers develop collaborative partnerships with educators in other countries. The new “Teachers’ Guide to Collaboration on the Internet” provides tutorials, tips, online and print resources, and specific curriculum-based projects in which U.S. teachers can participate to establish school-to-school global interaction via the internet. Examples are provided across the entire curriculum, from science and creative-arts projects to interaction in world languages. iEARN is currently active in schools and youth organizations in 115 countries. The organization works internationally with many partners to expand access by U.S. classes to the world’s students and teachers. iEARN-USA Director Edwin Gragert said the internet provides students and teachers with the opportunity to go beyond international simulations and engage directly with students in other countries. “Students have the opportunity to both learn and teach through direct interaction, enabling them to gain knowledge about and the ability to work with other cultures,” Gragert said. “These are important 21st-century skills. The Teachers Guide provided by the Department of Education helps educators equip students with these skills.”

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New directory steers educators toward free educational audio and video content

LearnOutLoud.com, an online portal for audio and video learning material, has launched what it calls the internet’s largest directory of free educational audio and video content. This directory contains more than 500 free titles, including audio books, historical speeches, and university lectures. In addition to extensive links to free audio and video content–including collections of dozens of video lectures from MIT–LarnOutLoud.com says it has produced dozens of its own free audio titles for the directory. Examples of free audio books that can be downloaded from the site include Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance and James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh. LearnOutLoud.com’s catalog offers an extensive collection of nonfiction and classic fiction titles organized into categories such as business, language learning, and self-help. Audio guides to foreign-language courses and other subjects also are available.

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New directory steers educators toward free educational audio and video content

LearnOutLoud.com, an online portal for audio and video learning material, has launched what it calls the internet’s largest directory of free educational audio and video content. This directory contains more than 500 free titles, including audio books, historical speeches, and university lectures. In addition to extensive links to free audio and video content–including collections of dozens of video lectures from MIT–LearnOutLoud.com says it has produced dozens of its own free audio titles for the directory. Examples of free audio books that can be downloaded from the site include Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance and James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh. LearnOutLoud.com’s catalog offers an extensive collection of nonfiction and classic fiction titles organized into categories such as business, language learning, and self-help. Audio guides to foreign-language courses and other subjects also are available.

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Answers.com adds directory of education blogs to its Teacher’s Toolkit

Answers.com, an answer-based search engine, is developing a directory of teacher blogs for its Teacher’s Toolkit, a free online resource for educators that also includes lesson plan tools and citation help for students. Within the education blog directory, Answers.com says it will provide links to general-information blogs, language-related blogs, history and social studies blogs, and mathematics blogs. The search engine says its blog directory is meant to stir original thoughts and provide creative ideas for the growth of technology in the classroom. Answers.com encourages teachers to peruse these educator-approved blogs for new lesson plan ideas, thought-provoking opinions, and integral issues pertaining to education and technology today. According to Answers.com, all blogs in its directory are approved and screened before being included. The Answers.com Teachers Toolkit also includes a free downloadable citations poster for classrooms and libraries, as well as an application to order copies for free.

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Minn. schools get $55M tech windfall

Thanks to a court settlement with Microsoft Corp., Minnesota schools will share $55 million they can use to buy new computers and software, Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced on Jan. 30. And if Minnesota is any indication, schools in as many as 14 other states soon could have similar windfalls of their own.

While Minnesota schools have known since 2004 that they had some money coming their way, the final amount was up in the air until recently. Pawlenty said that the technology vouchers have just started going out.

“With the fast-paced changes in the field of technology, it is often difficult for schools to keep pace,” he said. “This money will allow them to update and–in many cases–expand their technology, which in turn will help students learn and achieve at higher levels.”

Pawlenty’s announcement is among the first from a string of states awarded substantial settlements as the result of a highly publicized class-action lawsuit, in which U.S. customers and businesses claimed Microsoft was violating antitrust laws by overcharging for its Windows operating system and its Excel and Word software programs. The company had denied the allegations, saying the prices on its products had dropped. Montana also reportedly has distributed settlement money to schools, though those figures were not available at press time.

In total, Microsoft reached similar agreements with consumers in 15 states–Arizona, California, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, and West Virginia–as well as the District of Columbia.

As part of these agreements, customers were to receive vouchers from the company that would allow them to purchase new software and hardware products of their choice. Though each state has a slightly different agreement, the consensus was that a large portion of any unclaimed vouchers–as much as two-thirds in some places–would be distributed to schools to upgrade aging technology components. The rest would be returned to Microsoft.

The announcement in Minnesota is significant, because it provides the first indication of just how much money schools in these states are likely to see as a result of the settlements.

In total, Minnesota consumers received $174.5 million worth of vouchers from the company, $110 million of which went unclaimed. Under the state’s settlement agreement, half the value of all unclaimed vouchers–totaling $55.2 million–is to be distributed to schools.

If the apparent lackluster response from consumers holds true in other states, schools in places such as California–where settlement agreements exceeded $1 billion–could be in line for a major financial windfall.

In Minnesota, the amount each school gets depends on the concentration of poverty in its district. Some will receive only a few thousand dollars, while others, like Minneapolis and St. Paul, are in line for more than $6 million each. To get the money, each district in the state was asked to submit a blueprint for how it planned to use the funds. Districts have until 2012 to use the vouchers.

“It’s definitely going to give us a much-needed shot in the arm, there’s no question about that,” said Mary Mehsikomer, a senior planner with the Minnesota Department of Education, in an interview with eSchool News about Pawlenty’s announcement.

Not only will the funds help schools upgrade aging technology throughout the state, Mehsikomer said; they also should help soften the impact of recent cuts to federal grant initiatives, such as the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program, which Congress cut by 45 percent in its 2006 budget.

In 2005, Minnesota received $3.5 million as a result of the EETT program. Though Mehsikomer could not say how much money the state would receive in 2006, she said the budget cuts are a good indication that Minnesota’s share will be significantly less this year.

More than offsetting the pain of federal budget cuts, she said, the majority of the funds will be used to bolster and extend existing ed-tech programs–not, as EETT is intended, to start new ones.

“We don’t use a lot of EETT funds for equipment,” she explained, adding that the way the Microsoft settlement is set up, schools are required to use the funds to replace or upgrade existing technology, such as hardware, software, and infrastructure.

Mehsikomer said schools likely will use the money to purchase a variety of hardware and software products, including instructional software titles, productivity software, and infrastructure equipment.

At the elementary school where Pawlenty detailed the payout, Principal Patricia Steingruebl was ecstatic to learn her school would be getting $55,000. She said the school now spends about $2,000 a year on new technology.

“We don’t plan to spend that all at once,” Steingruebl said. One priority, she said, will be new software to help teach reading.

The vouchers automatically will go to districts, which will be able to shop from a list of 1,500 approved hardware and software products, said Richard Hagstrom, an attorney with a Minneapolis law firm involved in the case. He said the offerings go beyond Microsoft products.

Mehsikomer said the claims administrator already informed all but 46 districts in the state regarding the amount of money each school will receive and that the remaining 46 districts should expect to get word soon.

Because the settlement represents more or less a one-time investment for schools, Mehsikomer stressed that schools “need to be very careful” in how they choose to use these funds.

But, she added, if schools use the money responsibly, the upside potential for technology in Minnesota’s schools will be huge.

Links:

Minnesota-Microsoft settlement page
http://www.microsoftmnmde.com

Microsoft consumer class-action settlement information
http://www.microsoft.com/mscorp/legal/class/

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Researchers warn of file-destroying worm

Cnn.com reports that the new Kama Sutra worm will begin attacking infected computers on February 3rd, and then on the third of every following month. Windows Office documents, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PDFs are among the files that will be overwritten by the worm. The data will be changed and the originals will no longer be accessible. The software tempts users through sexy pictures sent through email, and user interaction is necessary to enable the infection…

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