Riverdeep buys Houghton Mifflin for $1.8 billion

Houghton Mifflin Co. on Nov. 29 agreed to a nearly $1.8 billion buyout that will pair a venerable name in educational textbook publishing with Riverdeep Inc., a smaller firm whose complementary strength is in educational software.

By joining Houghton Mifflin’s paper-and-ink business with Riverdeep’s core strength in educational software, the newly formed venture hopes to better position itself against larger rivals Pearson PLC, McGraw-Hill Cos., and Harcourt Education.

The deal was the second significant merger in just over a month that is sure to affect the school software market. In late October, Adobe Systems purchased Serious Magic, a maker of video editing tools, for an undisclosed amount (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/ showStoryts.cfm?ArticleID=6730).

Barry O’Callaghan, Riverdeep’s chairman and CEO, said the transaction seeks to “capitalize on the convergence of print and digital education platforms” and help Riverdeep draw strength from Houghton Mifflin’s larger sales force.

The buyers, a newly formed holding company called HM Rivergroup PLC, are led by O’Callaghan, a former investment banker from Ireland and a controlling shareholder of Riverdeep.

HM Rivergroup is paying $1.75 billion in cash for Boston-based Houghton Mifflin. In addition, some Houghton managers and employees are rolling over $40 million in stock into shares of the new company.

The buyers also are assuming about $1.61 billion in debt in the deal, expected to create a company with more than $1.4 billion in revenue–most of it from Houghton Mifflin, which has about 3,500 employees, including 1,200 in Boston, to Riverdeep’s total 300 workers.

As part of the deal, the new holding group also acquired Riverdeep in a share-for-share exchange valuing Riverdeep at approximately $1.2 billion, including assumption of debt, bringing the total purchase to more than $5 billion.

After the deal’s completion, the new holding company will be based in Ireland and be renamed Houghton Mifflin Riverdeep Group PLC.

The Nov. 29 transaction was the latest in a string of ownership changes for Houghton Mifflin, the fourth-largest textbook publisher in the United States, which was acquired by French media and telecommunications company Vivendi Universal in 2001 for $2.2 billion, including $500 million in assumed debt. The next year, Vivendi sold Houghton Mifflin for $1.28 billion to Thomas H. Lee and Bain Capital, two Boston firms that also agreed to assume $380 million of debt.

Riverdeep was founded in 1995 and underwent a management buyout led by O’Callaghan in 2002. The company’s web-based and CD-ROM course materials include its flagship product, called Destination Success. The firm has recently added education products from such names as The Learning Company, Broderbund, and Edmark.

“By putting these two companies together, we’ve created the competitive advantage beyond all standard competitors who are trying to grow these things organically, as was Houghton Mifflin before,” said Collin Earnst, a Houghton Mifflin spokesman. “Where the market’s heading is actually moving toward an electronic format, so that loop between instruction, assessment, and remediation is closing tightly around technology,” Earnst said.

Today’s students increasingly are studying from both textbooks and online curricula. Having acquired the textbook assets of Houghton Mifflin, Riverdeep will be able to offer more integrated learning materials to schools, company officials say.

The deal also will expand Riverdeep’s reach by enabling Houghton Mifflin’s sales force to promote Riverdeep’s products. Mifflin’s sales force is four times larger than Riverdeep’s.

“This isn’t really about collaborating to create new products,” said Tony Mulderry, an executive vice president at Riverdeep. “It’s about increasing the footprint of Riverdeep’s sales force.” As a result, Riverdeep hopes to be able to compete head to head with Pearson and its popular SuccessMaker software, among other titles.

The new owners claim to have no plans to cut staff, because the newly merged businesses “will continue to operate in the fashion they’re already operating in,” Mulderry said. He added, “Globally, eLearning is going to more significantly impact the classroom, and we aim to be at the forefront–both in the U.S. and worldwide.”

Tony Lucki, chairman, president, and CEO of Houghton Mifflin, will become vice chairman of the newly formed holding company and will remain in his leadership role at Houghton Mifflin.

tags

Millions in eRate dollars withheld from Baltimore schools

Millions of dollars from a federal school technology program could be lost to the Baltimore City Public Schools, because the district has not fixed problems from an audit of the money it received in 2002.

Last year’s audit found the school system could not prove that computer equipment funded by the eRate, the $2.5 billion-a-year federal program that offers telecommunications discounts to needy schools, had been delivered or installed.

As a result of that and other findings, the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC), the third-party contractor that administers the program for the Federal Communications Commission, says it wants back $2.5 million of the $4.1 million it gave the city during the 2002-03 school year. The story was first reported by the Baltimore Sun Nov. 26. The school system is eligible for millions of dollars because it serves a high-poverty population, but it has not received any money from the program since 2002.

Despite the problems, Baltimore reportedly applied for nearly $20 million this school year–money program administrators won’t disburse until new procedures are in place to ensure the funds are properly spent.

“Until we know there are procedures in place so the findings we noted will not happen again, we’re not going to make any disbursements,” said USAC spokesman James Mardis.

On Dec. 12, the school board approved a new three-year, $267,000 contract with national eRate consulting firm Funds for Learning. School district spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt said the district would look to the firm for guidance in addressing the concerns raised by program administrators. Officials say the move should help correct any administrative failings and, hopefully, eliminate cause for future concern.

In an interview with eSchool News, Funds for Learning CEO John Harrington said although his firm made no promises with regard to how much of the money might be recovered, his consultants will work with the district to help achieve compliance under the program.

“We’re a little bit like accountants,” he said. “We want to help the district assess its situation and decide what can be done to shore up its processes.”

The board approved the contract with Funds for Learning despite protests from at least one competing eRate consultant who argued publicly that hiring the company would amount to a conflict of interest for the district.

Garnet E. Person, chief executive officer of eRate Elite Services in Owings Mill, Md., said in the Sun that Funds for Learning also consults with technology vendor Cisco Systems. Cisco happens to be one of the firms vying for the district’s eRate business, he said.

Person, whose firm lost out in a competitive-bidding process with Funds for Learning to serve as the district’s primary eRate consultant, told the paper that consultants often have influence over what companies their clients do business with. The deal would look suspicious if Baltimore eventually decided to hire Cisco, he said.

“There’s something not right about this,” Person told the Sun.

Despite his misgivings, however, board members voted to approve the contract. “We addressed all of those concerns” during the board meeting, said Baltimore’s Pyatt. “It is understood by all parties involved that the school system reserves the right to choose what service providers it works with.”

Despite his firm’s ties to Cisco, Harrington said his consultants have no preference as to what service providers the district eventually signs on with.

“Because of the rules of the [eRate] competitive-bidding process, we don’t recommend services or help [districts] procure those services,” he said. “There are a lot of situations where districts want consultants to hold their hands through the entire process … That’s not always in the best interest of the district. We’re compliance specialists. That’s what we do.”

The $2.5 million in question reportedly is being held by a local telecommunications agency and will be forwarded to the district once USAC is satisfied of its compliance with program rules.

Baltimore isn’t the only school system to have had eRate funds withheld. Across the country, a number of districts have come under fire for their handling of the program. A 2005 report from the House Commerce Committee highlighted several examples of districts that ran afoul of eRate rules. The report challenged USAC to shore up the program’s policies and curb future abuses.

tags

Social-networking sites confound schools

More than three years after social-networking web sites such as MySpace and Facebook first began cropping up online, school leaders still struggle with how to set policies regarding the use of such sites both inside and outside of school–and many school systems lack these policies altogether, according to a recent survey.

Only 35 percent of the educators, administrators, and school board members who registered for the National School Boards Association’s annual Technology + Learning (T+L) Conference and responded to an eMail survey given before the event was held in Dallas Nov. 8-10 said their districts had policies to address the use of social-networking sites by their students. Fifty percent of respondents said their districts had no such policies, and 15 percent weren’t sure.

The survey’s findings suggest a degree of confusion on the topic that was reflected in forums held during the T+L Conference itself and in a separate webcast hosted by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), also in November.

Among respondents who said their districts have a policy that covers social-networking web sites, the most common approach seems to be the use of a firewall or filtering software to block students’ access to these sites while at school.

When asked what their policy says, about half of respondents to the NSBA survey indicated their policy is simply to filter such sites, while some educators also said they require students to sign an acceptable-use policy making it clear that unauthorized use of these sites during school hours is prohibited.

“Students at our school and their parents sign a form stating they will not attempt to use MySpace or other [such] web sites without permission and supervision of the teacher,” wrote one respondent. Said another, “Acceptable-use policies have been put in place that define what is acceptable in an educational setting and the consequences of abuse. There are some sites that have been physically blocked. These policies undergo scrutiny on a regular basis and are updated as deemed necessary, as technology advances.”

Interestingly, very few of the responses included teaching students about responsible use of online social networks–a point that Anne Bryant, NSBA’s executive director, noted. “It is important to keep in mind that just blocking access to social web sites at school is not the end of the story,” said Bryant in a statement. “Most of the misuse of these sites takes place at home, but still affects the classroom. We have to teach our students about the safe and proper use of social web sites.”

Thirty-six percent of those polled by NSBA said students’ use of MySpace and similar sites has been “disruptive” to their school district’s learning environment. Of these educators, about two-thirds said the posting of inappropriate content or personally identifiable information posed a problem; about 40 percent said cyber-bullying or “causing too much time off task” were problems; and one in four said the creation of false pages for administrators or teachers has been a problem.

A ‘MySpace world’

The need to teach students about the proper use of such sites was a point of emphasis in CoSN’s Nov. 15 webcast, titled “Keeping Students Secure in a MySpace World.”

Whether the challenge is avoiding cyber bullies or potential online predators, educators have every right to be skeptical of the increasing popularity of social-networking web sites on campus, participants in the webcast agreed. Still, despite its obvious pitfalls, online social networking holds great potential as a learning exercise, many acknowledged.

Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas, said social-networking web sites can help connect students in the United States to their peers in other countries, providing invaluable lessons in foreign cultures.

But it’s up to schools to “mitigate the risks as much as possible,” said Harold Rowe, associate superintendent for technology at the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas.

One way to do that, said Rowe, is to inform students of the dangers these sites pose–and outline tactics to avoid being victimized by online predators.

Though raising student awareness is essential to keeping kids safe online, webcast speakers said, it’s not the only step schools should take.

Educators also must practice effective classroom management and oversight, while administrators should explore the use of recording and monitoring technologies intended to determine where students are on the web–and where they’re trying to go.

Schools can contact MySpace and other sites to request that potentially harmful information posted by students be removed, but contacting online service providers to request these changes takes time, Rowe said. Rather than merely reacting in such situations, he said, schools should be teaching responsible use of these sites up front. Ron Teixeira, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, recommended that educators visit his organization’s web site to download free resources, activities, and lesson plans for teaching online safety in schools. Eventually, he said, cyber security needs to become second nature for students, “just like looking both ways before crossing the street or never talking to strangers.”

Postings, protection–and policies

Though education clearly is important, how should school board policies adequately address their students’ use of social-networking technologies? And what are school leaders’ rights and limitations when it comes to enforcing such policies if students misuse these sites?

In an online discussion hosted by NSBA during its T+L Conference, legal expert Kimberly Jessie, an associate at the law firm Bracewell Giuliani, sought to answer these questions.

Unless there is a “substantial disruption to the educational environment,” school leaders are limited in their ability to take any action if students post offensive or inappropriate material outside of school, Jessie said.

However, when asked how school leaders can work with parents to address the bullying and ostracizing comments that often take place in these online environments, “when many of them do not view it as problem,” Jessie recommended letting parents know that although schools are limited in their ability to discipline such behavior, teachers have been successful in filing individual lawsuits against students and their parents.

“One teacher recently won a $500,000 lawsuit for defamation because of this issue,” she wrote.

Make sure your acceptable-use policies limit computer access to educational purposes only and prohibit access for personal uses, Jessie noted, adding: “Policies should inform students [and their parents] that disciplinary action may be taken against them when their off-campus speech causes a substantial disruption to the education environment or interferes with another student’s rights. … Criminal action may be taken against [students] when their speech constitutes a true threat.”

tags

Democrats lay out education agenda

As the newly elected Congress convenes this month in Washington, D.C., school leaders and education advocates will be watching the proceedings with great interest: Democratic victories in the Nov. 7 elections have shaken up the balance of power in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, bringing what are sure to be several changes that will affect schools.

Aong the many issues that could be influenced by the election results are college loan interest rates, workforce preparedness, funding for educational technology, and the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

The election’s true impact might not be known for a while. Even through Democrats wrested control over both chambers of Congress from Republicans, their agenda could be curtailed by the threat of a veto from President Bush.

Still, many education groups are encouraged by the ascension of what they view as a more favorable climate for education funding on Capitol Hill.

“These election results are a rebuke to the Republican majority that has wielded so much political power in recent years in state and federal offices. Republican leadership has not governed with moderation and cooperation, but with extremism and exclusion, turning their backs on even the moderate members of their own party,” said Edward J. McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement following the elections. “The party that once prided itself on fiscal restraint ran up record deficits, hampering investment in national priorities like education, and left a long-term legacy of economic recklessness,” McElroy continued. “Poor and middle-income Americans have been hit particularly hard by these policies, but their prospects look considerably better with the incoming Congress, governors, and state legislatures. … Democrats now have an opportunity to translate the priorities they campaigned on into legislation and programs.” Democrats rolled up gains of nearly 30 seats in the House and now control 51 of the 100 Senate seats as well, taking power over both chambers of Congress for the first time in 12 years. Democratic candidates rode to victory on a wave of public discontent with the Iraq war, corruption, and Republican President George W. Bush’s leadership, among other issues.

The narrow governing majorities in Congress, especially the Senate, could spawn more partisan gridlock and political warfare during Bush’s final two years in the White House. Still, Democratic control of Congress–which will make Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California the first female House speaker in U.S. history–could open the door for changes to the legislative agenda that might favor schools.

“Tonight is a great victory for the American people,” Pelosi told a Democratic rally on Capitol Hill on the evening of the elections. “Today the American people voted for change, and they voted for Democrats to take our country in a new direction.”

Pelosi has outlined an ambitious agenda for her first 100 hours as House speaker, including the introduction of legislation to reduce interest rates on college loans, raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, eliminate corporate subsidies for oil companies, allow the government to negotiate lower rates for prescription drugs, and impose new lobbying restrictions.

Control of the House also means chairmanships of the various committees will fall to Democrats. Currently, the ranking Democrat on the influential House Appropriations Committee is Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, and the ranking member of House Committee on Education and the Workforce is Rep. George Miller of California.

That could have a significant impact on the legislative priorities of Congress, influencing issues down the road such as federal education funding, 21st-century workforce preparedness, and the impending reauthorization of NCLB, which is expected to begin this year. Miller has been an outspoken critic of several aspects of NCLB, including what he views as its punitive approach to holding schools accountable that takes away funding from the very schools that need it most.

Federal funding for educational technology and other school programs also could see a boost. In recent years, the Republican-controlled House has passed an appropriations bill that mirrored President Bush’s budget request, which in 2007 aimed to cut education funding by more than $3 billion and eliminate ed-tech funding altogether (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=6146).

House Democrats, however, have favored spending more on education than the Republicans who have controlled Congress throughout the Bush administration, which could bode well for schools in the new legislative session. The 109th Congress adjourned last month without reaching an agreement on the 2007 education budget, leaving that task to incoming legislators.

What’s more, the Democrats’ win could spur progress toward a five-point plan for innovation that Pelosi and other House Democrats unveiled a year ago. Aimed at boosting the competitiveness of America’s workers, the plan includes affordable access to broadband technology for all citizens and incentives for students to pursue careers in science and technology (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?Article ID=5978). House Republicans issued a statement in response to the proposal when it was first announced, calling it an agenda of “higher taxation, litigation, and regulation.”

In the Senate, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd is in line to assume chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy is expected to become chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Kennedy, like Miller, was one of four lawmakers from both parties who drafted the original NCLB legislation. Like Miller, however, Kennedy believes Congress and the Bush administration have failed to live up to their pledge to provide the resources necessary to allow schools to meet the law’s strict new accountability demands. All 435 House seats, 33 of the 100 Senate seats, and 36 of the 50 governorships were at stake in the Nov. 7 elections, which also saw Democrats score huge wins in governors’ races. Democratic candidates for governor took six seats from Republicans and won a national majority that could give them an edge in the 2008 presidential election. “This is a wake-up call to the Republican Party,” said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona on CNN. What the Democrats’ win means for tech

A Democratic majority in Congress also could result in a significant shift in tech-related policies for addressing issues such as net neutrality, digital copyright rules, and more.

In an 11-11 tie, a Republican-controlled Senate committee narrowly failed last summer to endorse new rules that would have ensured “net neutrality,” or the idea that all internet traffic be treated the same way, no matter what its source or destination might be. (See story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6378.) A similar net-neutrality measure also failed in the House.

Supporters of the measure–which included internet content providers such as Google and Amazon, as well as education and consumers’ rights groups–argued that internet service providers could give preferential treatment to business partners or use pricing and access limits to discriminate between web sites and other internet users. Phone companies have talked about creating a “two-tiered” system in which users of their networks, including schools and other web site operators, who desire faster service for the delivery of broadband or voice-over-IP applications would have to pay more. Those who couldn’t pay would be relegated to the internet “slow lane.”

Phone and cable companies argued the proposal would stifle investment in broadband technology by restricting what they could charge customers. Both sides have spent millions of dollars on lobbying and advertising on the issue.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which writes telecommunications laws, argued against interfering in a system that so far has worked well without government regulation. In the new Congress, however, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the ranking Democrat who is set to assume chairmanship, supports network neutrality.

Over in the House, the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from AT&T’s home state of Texas. Barton has consistently opposed net neutrality, as has Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who chairs the Internet and Technology subcommittee.

By contrast, Rep. John Dingell, also of Michigan and who will assume the chairmanship in the new Congress, has been sympathetic to net neutrality proponents. And Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who would take over the Internet and Technology subcommittee, wrote an unsuccessful net neutrality amendment in the House and has made the issue a top priority.

Dingell also is expected to live up to his reputation as a tough overseer of the agencies that answer to his committee, such as the Federal Communications Commission, according to an Associated Press report.

tags

Social bookmarking makes its mark in education

The buzz surrounding so-called Web 2.0 technologies is deafening and, in my opinion, deservedly so. While sites like MySpace and YouTube have garnered most of the attention, I think the trend of “social bookmarking,” otherwise known as “tagging,” just might be the most interesting development of all.

Tagging sites allow users to save their favorite links, content, and media to a centrally accessible site, similar to how you save bookmarks to your web browser. (For a good explanation of tagging and its implications for educators, see this story we did on the subject last year: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm? ArticleID=6126.)

The real kicker is that this new method of bookmarking taps into the engine that makes social networking so powerful: the masses. Not only can you store and find content you’re interested in easily, from any internet-connected computer; you can also share tagged and posted items with other users, or see what other people have bookmarked as relevant to a particular topic–without having to sift through pages and pages of irrelevant search results.

For educators and scholars, there are a few key problems with internet research today: It can be cumbersome to wade through dozens of hits and hone in on the desired results, and web links also are ephemeral, sometimes disappearing when you need them most. But social bookmarking is now helping to alleviate these problems in academia.

Where once only the creator of the content had ultimate control over its organizational structure and metadata, now new sites such as Bibsonomy (http://www.bibsonomy.org), Connotea (http://www.connotea.org), and Complore (http://complore.com) are capitalizing on the growth of tagging and social media and applying this model to specific academic disciplines. Bibsonomy is devoted to the tagging of literary sources, while Connotea is aimed at scientists and researchers. Complore is devoted to research in general, and besides helping researchers organize and share their work, it also serves as a networking tool in the research community.

Zotero (http://www.zotero.org), a new research tool produced by George Mason University, combines many of these ideas and takes them to the next level. This open-source tool runs straight from your web browser and allows for citations, note taking, and storage of PDF files and other multimedia. In addition, it has powerful collaborative tools and allows for worldwide access at any time.

I believe these applications represent an exciting sea change for educators, researchers, and pupils. A globally accessible, flexible organizational system for multimedia content that organizes content in ways that make sense to both the creators and end users seems to combine the best of both World Wide Webs–1.0 and 2.0.

You might have noticed recently that eSchool News Online has gotten behind the social bookmarking movement, and we’ve added icons for users to post their favorite stories on Digg and del.icio.us. It’s all well and good for us to organize our content for you (and, obviously, we’ll continue to present our content in new, exciting, and useful ways), but by signing up for these services, then tagging your favorite sections of eSN Online, you not only sort and save the most useful sections of our site in a way that is meaningful for you–but you also help other tech-savvy educators find and share this content themselves. We hope you’ll take this opportunity to explore what this exciting new medium has to offer.

New Conference Information Center content

While I’m on the subject of helping your colleagues, be sure to visit our Conference Information Center (CIC) at eSN Online, where we’ll be posting live updates from all the many ed-tech conferences in the new year–starting with the Florida Educational Technology Conference in Orlando Jan. 24-26.

If you can’t make it to any of these conferences, our CIC is a great way to keep abreast of the news and information coming out of these shows–and if you are planning to attend, then consider signing up to be a Conference Correspondent. It’s easy; all you do is pass along the wisdom you glean in workshops and sessions by contributing to our Conference Correspondent blogs, and you’ll be helping your peers who can’t be there in person on their path to professional growth.

Visit our CIC now and sign up to be a Conference Correspondent for any of the ed-tech trade shows in 2007: http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic

New Educator’s Resource Centers:

Controlling Security Threats (Sponsored by Symantec Corp.) http://www.eschoolnews.com/resources/reports/usersecurity/index.cfm Building Digital Communication Skills for the 21st-Century Workforce (Sponsored by Adobe Systems Inc.) http://www.eschoolnews.com/resources/reports/digitalskills/index.cfm

tags

High Court: Don’t delete that eMail

With more school district business being conducted online now than ever before, school technology leaders should be aware of new federal rules flowing from a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. Experts say the rules could force school administrators to rethink their eMail storage policies and take stock of existing technologies to ensure compliance.

According to the new rules, which went into effect Dec. 1, schools, businesses, and other organizations are required to keep tabs on all eMail, instant messages (IM), and other digital communications produced by their employees.

The rules, first approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in April, have been widely reported as important for businesses and other for-profit enterprises. But according to legal experts familiar with the case, the High Court’s ruling also applies to public schools and other nonprofit organizations.

The rules–which state that any entity involved in litigation must be able to produce “electronically stored information” during the discovery process, in which opposing sides of a legal dispute must share evidence before trial–could have significant implications for school technology departments, especially in places where technicians routinely copy over backup discs and other information housed on school servers.

In an interview with eSchool News, Alvin F. Lindsay, a partner with Hogan & Hartson LLP, said that while the law has always required schools, corporations, and other entities to produce certain kinds of documentation as evidence in the discovery process, the latest ruling is an affirmation that eMail messages and electronic documents are part of that mix.

An expert on issues concerning technology and the law, Lindsay has called prematurely deleting or copying over eMail documents a matter of “virtual shredding.” Lindsay says the rules will require schools and other organizations to think about how and where they store digital information in advance of potential legal skirmishes. Schools, for example, might want to conduct technology inventories to better understand what types of eMail storage and data backup systems they have in place; establish guidelines for the kinds of information that must be saved and for those that can be deleted; and decide where to store critical data, so the information is easily accessible in the event of a problem, he said.

The new regulations don’t constitute any major changes to the law per se, Lindsay said, but by noting that electronic communications should be preserved with the same care and diligence as other business-related documents, the High Court ruling forces managers “to recognize this distinction up front,” giving schools, businesses, and even individual users an opportunity to be proactive in efforts to secure relevant computer-based information.

Many districts already are working with their staff members to help them understand they should expect limited privacy when using school-owned technology.

“We have a policy that employees need to sign indicating they have no right to consider anything that they do on our network–including our [voice-over-IP system]–as confidential,” wrote Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Berryessa Union School District in San Jose, Calif.

But even that isn’t enough, explained Lindsay–not anymore.

Though it’s important for educators and other school stakeholders to recognize how information that is sent and received on school computers and other devices might be used in litigation, the new rules represent a call to action for schools and other entities to understand how and where personal communications between employees are stored on the network, he said.

To do that, several corporations–and even some schools–have begun turning to companies that offer solutions for tracking, storing, and searching for eMail communication and other electronic data.

Roger Matus, chief executive officer of Concord, Mass.-based inBoxer Inc., recently told the Associated Press (AP) his company has received a five-fold increase in requests for solutions that streamline the search and retrieval of eMail messages and other electronic information, compared with six months ago.

“Companies used to focus on how they store information,” Matus told AP. “Now, they’re focusing on how to retrieve it.”

For schools and other entities that often require the assistance of legal counsel, the rules also could translate into higher costs, experts say. Not only will organizations need to find a method of cataloging and searching through eMail and IM in the event of a lawsuit; they also might consider investing in technology that helps them filter through digital photos stored on employees’ phones and information tucked away on removable memory sticks, among other portable devices.

The ruling no doubt will force some school leaders to reevaluate their digital storage techniques, but it isn’t likely to send administrators into a panic, said Mary Kusler, assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).

“This isn’t all that new for school districts,” said Kusler, who added: “Most schools already operate this way.”

Still, it’s important for schools to maintain compliance. To do that, Kusler said, the AASA recommends that administrators verify their systems and servers are robust enough to handle the increase in stored information. Schools also should check with their respective state and local governments and legal counsel to ensure they meet all pre-established requirements for document retention, she said.

John Q. Porter, deputy superintendent of information systems for the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, said his district has long had a policy for storing electronic communications such as eMail in the event of a lawsuit.

“It happens to us frequently, and we do have a process in place,” said Porter, whose district keeps all employee-generated eMail messages for at least 10 weeks. Montgomery County also has a software program that enables district IT staff to search through and cull information archived on the network for review in the event of a legal dispute.

To be fair, he said, the district includes disclaimers that appear on every machine and remote eMail interface reminding employees that any information produced by them and distributed over the district’s network is the property of the school system.

“Our understanding is that, as long as you have a process in place so this type of information is discoverable in the event of a lawsuit, then that is fine,” said Porter. Where schools are more likely to get burned is if they don’t have a policy for saving electronic information and, in the event of a lawsuit, decide suddenly to erase eMail messages or other documents to avoid detection, noted Porter.

“If you were involved in some type of litigation and decided tomorrow to delete eMail,” he explained, “now, that would be a problem.”

Despite its existing safeguards, Porter said, Montgomery County officials will look closely at the new rules to decide if any upgrades or changes to the school system’s policies are necessary.

“I don’t think it’s going to change anything, but we certainly are going to have our lawyers take a look at it,” he said of the ruling.

Unlike Montgomery County, some districts have learned the importance of archiving and saving electronic communications the hard way.

In late 2002, members of the Oshkosh Area School District in Oshkosh, Wis., found themselves thick in controversy after a local newspaper discovered that school board members had been routinely erasing eMail messages sent to them by constituents.

The Oshkosh Northwestern, which requested the messages as part of an open-records request for a story it planned to run on district boundary and consolidations plans, said the eMail correspondence should have been archived–and that deleting it violated the state’s open-records laws.

At the time of the controversy, former state Attorney General Jim Doyle, who is now governor of Wisconsin, agreed that the decision by school board members to delete constituents’ eMail messages did, in fact, violate state law. For their part, members of the Oshkosh school board at the time told eSchool News they were unaware that eMail messages were public records (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/ showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4161).

The Supreme Court ruling that went into effect Dec. 1 confirms this policy for all entities subject to a lawsuit.

tags

Ruckus upsets college music scene

A digital music downloading service geared toward college students has come under fire for allegedly using the popular social networking site Facebook.com to acquire the eMail addresses of thousands of unsuspecting students and using them to drum up business with universities.

The company–Herndon, Va.-based Ruckus Network–reportedly set up an account on Facebook for an imaginary student. Built as an online meeting place for college-age students, the site enables users to create “groups,” where students can discuss shared interests and connect with friends. By creating its own group on Facebook, the company’s critics contend, Ruckus was able to obtain the eMail addresses of almost every student who joined this group. Later, the company allegedly used those same addresses to connect with students, encouraging them to sign up for its online music download service and misleading them into thinking the service was affiliated with their respective universities.

On Sept. 5, a person named “Brody Ruckus” activated an account on Facebook by using a Georgia Tech eMail address. Georgia Tech had recently entered into an agreement with Ruckus for students to use its service on campus. “Brody Ruckus” then reportedly lured more than 400,000 students into joining its group by promising a video of a sexual encounter, before Facebook deleted the account.

Georgia Tech officials declined to comment.

Only days after the Facebook profile of Brody Ruckus was deleted, students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) began receiving messages from Ruckus via Facebook. The messages read: “Beginning this week, UW has become a partner school with the online music service called Ruckus through our shared connection to the Internet2 network.” The message went on to say that everyone at the school was eligible for free, unlimited downloads from Ruckus’ digital music library. Students at the school already had an account, the message said. All they needed to do was activate it.

But UW officials say Ruckus never established any such partnership with the school to provide free music to students. “Students didn’t know that,” says Brian Rust, senior administrative program specialist at UW’s Department of Information Technology. “They assumed it was true without knowing what, if any, arrangement there was.”

Within 24 hours, Rust said, 1,100 UW students had signed up with Ruckus and were downloading music. Because the school had no agreement with the company, additional bandwidth was not dedicated to support the spike in network traffic, he said. As a result, the university’s network slowed to a crawl. To resolve the problem, Rust said, UW had to “rate-shape,” or limit the amount of traffic stemming from students’ use of the online music service.

According to Robert Hayden, the school’s IT operations manager for housing, university officials returned to work the following Monday to find eMail messages from students asking them to partner with Ruckus.

Hayden says Ruckus had eMailed UW students who had signed up for the program, telling them, “If you are interested in supporting our cause, please do your part by eMailing the housing departments [and] letting them know that you would like to have Ruckus partnered with UW.” At the bottom of the message–a copy of which was obtained by eSchool News–was the contact information for Hayden.

“They denied sending both of the letters,” said Hayden. Ruckus has since admitted sending the eMail messages but claims they were isolated incidents by an overzealous employee.

The practice of using online social networks to market new products or business ventures is nothing new. For example, on MySpace.com, users are frequently deluged with friend requests from unfamiliar people seeking to promote their friends’ bands or pornographic web sites. Recently, it was revealed that popular YouTube contributor “Lonelygirl15” was actually an actress hired to star in a series of videos made by a pair of independent filmmakers. The revelation caused an outcry on the internet.

Still, critics say, what Ruckus did crosses the line.

“Basically they were blackmailing the university by having all the students advocate on their behalf,” Hayden says. “In my opinion, they engaged in sleazy and unethical tactics in an effort to drum up business.”

In hindsight, Ruckus–which would not reveal how many universities or students use its online service–admits its unorthodox marketing campaign was ill-advised.

“It was an exercise conducted by one of our marketing teams. It wasn’t something we had any real designs around,” said Ruckus President and Chief Executive Officer Mike Bebel in an interview with eSchool News. “It took on a life of its own. It was a good learning exercise for us, but not something that we would repeat.”

tags

Democrats lay out education agenda

As the newly elected Congress convenes this month in Washington, D.C., school leaders and education advocates will be watching the proceedings with great interest: Democratic victories in the Nov. 7 elections have shaken up the balance of power in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, bringing what are sure to be several changes that will affect schools.

Aong the many issues that could be influenced by the election results are college loan interest rates, workforce preparedness, funding for educational technology, and the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

The election’s true impact might not be known for a while. Even through Democrats wrested control over both chambers of Congress from Republicans, their agenda could be curtailed by the threat of a veto from President Bush.

Still, many education groups are encouraged by the ascension of what they view as a more favorable climate for education funding on Capitol Hill.

“These election results are a rebuke to the Republican majority that has wielded so much political power in recent years in state and federal offices. Republican leadership has not governed with moderation and cooperation, but with extremism and exclusion, turning their backs on even the moderate members of their own party,” said Edward J. McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement following the elections. “The party that once prided itself on fiscal restraint ran up record deficits, hampering investment in national priorities like education, and left a long-term legacy of economic recklessness,” McElroy continued. “Poor and middle-income Americans have been hit particularly hard by these policies, but their prospects look considerably better with the incoming Congress, governors, and state legislatures. … Democrats now have an opportunity to translate the priorities they campaigned on into legislation and programs.” Democrats rolled up gains of nearly 30 seats in the House and now control 51 of the 100 Senate seats as well, taking power over both chambers of Congress for the first time in 12 years. Democratic candidates rode to victory on a wave of public discontent with the Iraq war, corruption, and Republican President George W. Bush’s leadership, among other issues.

The narrow governing majorities in Congress, especially the Senate, could spawn more partisan gridlock and political warfare during Bush’s final two years in the White House. Still, Democratic control of Congress–which will make Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California the first female House speaker in U.S. history–could open the door for changes to the legislative agenda that might favor schools.

“Tonight is a great victory for the American people,” Pelosi told a Democratic rally on Capitol Hill on the evening of the elections. “Today the American people voted for change, and they voted for Democrats to take our country in a new direction.”

Pelosi has outlined an ambitious agenda for her first 100 hours as House speaker, including the introduction of legislation to reduce interest rates on college loans, raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, eliminate corporate subsidies for oil companies, allow the government to negotiate lower rates for prescription drugs, and impose new lobbying restrictions.

Control of the House also means chairmanships of the various committees will fall to Democrats. Currently, the ranking Democrat on the influential House Appropriations Committee is Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, and the ranking member of House Committee on Education and the Workforce is Rep. George Miller of California.

That could have a significant impact on the legislative priorities of Congress, influencing issues down the road such as federal education funding, 21st-century workforce preparedness, and the impending reauthorization of NCLB, which is expected to begin this year. Miller has been an outspoken critic of several aspects of NCLB, including what he views as its punitive approach to holding schools accountable that takes away funding from the very schools that need it most.

Federal funding for educational technology and other school programs also could see a boost. In recent years, the Republican-controlled House has passed an appropriations bill that mirrored President Bush’s budget request, which in 2007 aimed to cut education funding by more than $3 billion and eliminate ed-tech funding altogether (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=6146).

House Democrats, however, have favored spending more on education than the Republicans who have controlled Congress throughout the Bush administration, which could bode well for schools in the new legislative session. The 109th Congress adjourned last month without reaching an agreement on the 2007 education budget, leaving that task to incoming legislators.

What’s more, the Democrats’ win could spur progress toward a five-point plan for innovation that Pelosi and other House Democrats unveiled a year ago. Aimed at boosting the competitiveness of America’s workers, the plan includes affordable access to broadband technology for all citizens and incentives for students to pursue careers in science and technology (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?Article ID=5978). House Republicans issued a statement in response to the proposal when it was first announced, calling it an agenda of “higher taxation, litigation, and regulation.”

In the Senate, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd is in line to assume chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy is expected to become chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Kennedy, like Miller, was one of four lawmakers from both parties who drafted the original NCLB legislation. Like Miller, however, Kennedy believes Congress and the Bush administration have failed to live up to their pledge to provide the resources necessary to allow schools to meet the law’s strict new accountability demands. All 435 House seats, 33 of the 100 Senate seats, and 36 of the 50 governorships were at stake in the Nov. 7 elections, which also saw Democrats score huge wins in governors’ races. Democratic candidates for governor took six seats from Republicans and won a national majority that could give them an edge in the 2008 presidential election. “This is a wake-up call to the Republican Party,” said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona on CNN.

What the Democrats’ win means for tech

A Democratic majority in Congress also could result in a significant shift in tech-related policies for addressing issues such as net neutrality, digital copyright rules, and more.

In an 11-11 tie, a Republican-controlled Senate committee narrowly failed last summer to endorse new rules that would have ensured “net neutrality,” or the idea that all internet traffic be treated the same way, no matter what its source or destination might be. (See story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6378.) A similar net-neutrality measure also failed in the House.

Supporters of the measure–which included internet content providers such as Google and Amazon, as well as education and consumers’ rights groups–argued that internet service providers could give preferential treatment to business partners or use pricing and access limits to discriminate between web sites and other internet users. Phone companies have talked about creating a “two-tiered” system in which users of their networks, including schools and other web site operators, who desire faster service for the delivery of broadband or voice-over-IP applications would have to pay more. Those who couldn’t pay would be relegated to the internet “slow lane.”

Phone and cable companies argued the proposal would stifle investment in broadband technology by restricting what they could charge customers. Both sides have spent millions of dollars on lobbying and advertising on the issue.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which writes telecommunications laws, argued against interfering in a system that so far has worked well without government regulation. In the new Congress, however, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the ranking Democrat who is set to assume chairmanship, supports network neutrality.

Over in the House, the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from AT&T’s home state of Texas. Barton has consistently opposed net neutrality, as has Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who chairs the Internet and Technology subcommittee.

By contrast, Rep. John Dingell, also of Michigan and who will assume the chairmanship in the new Congress, has been sympathetic to net neutrality proponents. And Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who would take over the Internet and Technology subcommittee, wrote an unsuccessful net neutrality amendment in the House and has made the issue a top priority.

Dingell also is expected to live up to his reputation as a tough overseer of the agencies that answer to his committee, such as the Federal Communications Commission, according to an Associated Press report.

tags

Rand McNally delivers fee-based geography content online

Rand McNally recently launched a new web-based service to deliver comprehensive geography content, interactive games and activities, and skills-based lesson plans for teachers. Called Rand McNally Classroom, the web site offers a wealth of geography materials for simple integration into K-12 social studies, geography, and history curricula. Features of the site include detailed, up-to-date maps covering the entire world; customized maps of each school’s own neighborhood; build-your-own maps activities, continent quizzes, and puzzles; current-events updates and an “Ask the Experts” corner; and editable lesson plans and assessments. Teachers can project Rand McNally Classroom maps onto a whiteboard using an LCD projector. The subscription-based service launched in September. The site is fee-based, and the cost varies from school to school, based on school size, average daily attendance, and full-time enrollment. Until August 2007, Rand McNally is offering multi-year and multi-school discounts.

tags

Tough Love

In case you missed it amidst the just-ended orgy of merry consumerism, you might find it worthwhile to go back and give yourself a real holiday present. Pick up a copy of “Tough Choices or Tough Times.” The 170-page report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce lays out America’s options in terms as stark as its title. (Get the free executive summary: http://skillscommission.org/pdf/exec_sum/ToughChoices_EXECSUM.pdf) To be sure, this new report from the nonprofit and nonpartisan National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) carries all the standard and valid alarms we’ve grown so familiar with since “A Nation at Risk” hit the street way back in 1983. But this report is not just another clarion call for education reform.

In fact, it doesn’t call for systemic reform at all, but systemic replacement. We should pitch out the whole creaky system of K-12 education, its authors assert: “A system that pursues the wrong goals more efficiently is not a system this nation needs.”

Warns the report: “If we continue on the current course, and the number of nations outpacing us in the education race continues to grow at its current rate, the American standard of living will steadily fall relative to those nations, rich and poor, that are doing a better job. If the gap gets to a certain–but unknowable–point, the world’s investors will conclude that they can get a greater return on their funds elsewhere, and it will be almost impossible to reverse course.”

Instead this report proposes, among other radical moves, having schools operated as independent contractors, giving states rather than local school boards direct control over school financing, paying teachers for performance rather than seniority, trimming teachers’ retirement benefits so as to boost their salaries to an average of $100,000 per year.

“Many of our teachers are superb,” notes the report. “But we have for a long time gotten better teachers than we deserved because of the limited opportunities for women and minorities in our workforce.” Now, that’s changing, the authors contend.

The report also addresses our current system of standards, assessments, and curricula. Excellence in core subjects is a must. But a glaring omission, the panel declares, is that our current tests do little or nothing to measure the qualities that “may spell the difference between success and failure for the students who will grow up to be the workers of 21st century America: creativity and innovation, facility with the use of ideas and abstractions, the self-discipline and organization needed to manage one’s work and drive it through to a successful conclusion, the ability to function well as a member of a team, and so on.” Moving to such measures, the report points out, “will entail a major overhaul of the American testing industry. If that is not done, then nothing else will matter, because the old saw that what gets measured is what gets taught is essentially true.”

Beyond mere hand wringing, however, this report provides an actual prescription to cure what ails education. The report offers a clear, if controversial, 10-step program to retire an education system designed for the Nineteenth Century and replace it with something suitable for the global economy and the age of technology.

Still more remarkable: The report does not call for more money. Rather than seeking an influx of new funding, this report calls for redeploying some $60 billion already in the system, and putting those existing dollars to what the authors say is far better use. Now, $60 billion is a lot of money–equivalent to about five months’ of spending on Iraq–but it won’t be money alone that stands in the way of bringing these recommendations to life. Both major teacher unions as well as the National School Boards Association already have warned against hasty implementation of the NCEE plan.

Finding the political will to implement change as drastic as what’s proposed in “Tough Choices or Tough Times” might be just the tough love we need for American education.

Anything’s possible. Given the stature of this report’s authors, we just might implement these steps  or ones like them–before it’s too late. But, of course, if proposals were Porsches, beggars would drive.

tags