Cell-phone solution has parents abuzz

A new proposal to help students deal with New York City’s controversial ban on cell phones in public schools is getting a lot of buzz, but it might hit a dead zone first. Officials say they are exploring whether to install special lockers outside some schools to store students’ cell phones, a development that delayed recent court arguments on the ban. Plenty of parents and students who oppose the ban, however, are signaling pessimism about the logistics.

“I wish it would work, but I just know it won’t,” said Dorothy Giglio, 53, a co-president of the Parent Teacher Association at James Madison High School. “I have almost 4,300 students in my building. I cannot envision 4,300 lockers in front of the building.”

The lockers won’t likely be in place until the fall, and even then the program might launch at only one or just a handful of schools, said David Cantor, a schools spokesman. He said the school system is searching for a vendor who can absorb the entire cost of the operation. That would probably require charging students for use of the lockers, perhaps a quarter or 50 cents each time.

The lockers will have to be outside the school building, Cantor said, acknowledging that the largest schools would have the hardest time finding places for them and handling the flow.

“We’re trying to make a real effort to be responsive to parents who felt that we were not concerned about their ability to reach their kids and their kids’ ability to reach them, while at the same time not compromising on our commitment not to let cell phones in the school doors,” Cantor said.

Some parents and students argue the idea should be dropped. The lockers could cause more problems, and not just because they’d take up space, they say.

“Especially if the lockers are outside the school, people could just break into [them],” said Rebecca Falik, a 16-year-old junior at LaGuardia High School. “And if you have to pay for it, it’s just kind of ridiculous. It’s your right to have a cell phone.”

Her father was especially opposed to a charge. “We’re supposed to have a free public education,” Eugene Falik said. “The locker proposal says the kids who have the money to rent the locker get to use it–kids who don’t, don’t.”

As things now stand, students sometimes pay corner stores small fees to hold their cell phones for the school day.

Cell phones have been banned inside the city’s schools for years, but last spring, increased efforts to monitor what students took into schools brought the subject to the forefront.

Parents staged rallies and lobbied officials to try to rescind the ban, saying they wanted their children to have the phones so they could reach them in emergencies.

School officials, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose office controls the city public school system, argued cell phones were a distraction and could be used for nefarious purposes, including cheating.

A group of parents filed a lawsuit arguing that the ban as it currently stood was too broad and infringed on parents’ constitutional rights. (See “Parents sue NYC schools over cell-phone ban, http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=6549.)

Norman Siegel, a lawyer representing the parents, said the problem is that many parents want to be able to reach their children while they are on their way to school or on their way back, but that many agree cell-phone use should be limited or prohibited within the school buildings.

Oral arguments were scheduled in December, but they were delayed until Jan. 18 while the various parties learned more about the locker proposal.

Hollywood studios OK movie-download technology Sonic Solutions’ new Qflix system will allow educators to transfer movies downloaded from the internet to DVDs for classroom viewing

From eSchool News staff and wire service reports

Hollywood studios have approved a new technology and licensing arrangement that should remove a major obstacle consumers now face with burning movies they buy digitally over the internet onto a DVD that will play everywhere. The deal could make it easier for educators to buy movies online and then show them in their classrooms.

Sonic Solutions Inc. on Jan. 4 introduced the Qflix system for adding a standard digital lock to DVDs burned in a computer or a retail kiosk.

The lock, known as “content scrambling system,” or CSS, is backed by the studios, TV networks, and other content creators and comes standard on prerecorded DVDs today. All DVD players come equipped with a key that fits the lock and allows for playback. But movie download services such as Movielink, CinemaNow, and Amazon.com’s Unbox haven’t been able to use CSS until now, because studios feared widespread DVD burning could lead to piracy.

Studios have experimented with an alternative to CSS used by movie downloading service CinemaNow, but only a small number of titles are available for such burning–and some users have complained of problems with playback.

With Qflix–and its studio-backed copy-protection system–consumers should have more options. But they’ll need new blank DVDs and compatible DVD burners to use it. The system also can be used in retail kiosks, which could hold hundreds of thousands of older films and TV shows for which studios don’t see a huge market. Customers could pick a film, TV episode, or an entire season’s worth of shows and have them transferred to DVD on the spot. Burning a DVD will take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes using Sonic’s technology, the company said.

Consumers still would be subject to restrictions placed by the movie service and studios. For instance, using the copy-protection technology in Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Media system, a service could specify that a given title can be burned no more than two times.

Still, the solution opens the door for educators to use movie-download services to buy movies online and then burn them to DVD for showing to their students–giving them a potentially more convenient option for procuring video content.

Sonic has been working for three years to develop the technology and get studios to agree to amend the CSS license to allow a “download to burn” option.

“We are pleased and encouraged to see efforts like Sonic’s creation of Qflix that addresses the need for industry standard protection,” Chris Cookson, chief technology officer at Warner Bros., said in a statement.

The initial companies participating in Qflix include Verbatim Corp., which makes blank discs; the movie-download service Movielink; video-on-demand provider Akimbo Systems Inc.; and the Walgreen Co. chain of drug stores.

Studios still must figure out pricing schemes that appeal to consumers and protect their lucrative retail business. Some retailers, such as Wal-Mart, have talked about starting their own online downloading services or installing kiosks to burn DVDs in the store.

Also, most consumers will need a new DVD burner that includes the latest software. Some burners can be updated, Sonic said, and companies such as Plextor, a Qflix partner, are expected to market Qflix-enabled DVD burners that connect with a USB cable.

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