What kids learn in virtual worlds

Kids who are active members of virtual worlds are learning how to socialize, how to be technologically savvy–and how to be good little consumers, CNET reports. At least, that’s according to a group of academics and researchers who met Nov. 14 to discuss the effects of virtual worlds on children today. Of course, virtual worlds are still so new that researchers haven’t had much time to study their impact on kids. But the MacArthur Foundation, a sponsor of the panel discussion, has invested millions in research over the next several years to ask such questions … (CNET)

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Ed tech the focus in Australian campaign

Putting education at the heart of his campaign to be Australia’s next prime minister, opposition leader Kevin Rudd on Nov. 14 used his own journey out of poverty to talk up the power of education as “the engine room of equity … the engine room of opportunity,” reports Australia’s The Age. Every student in years 9 to 12 would be given access to their own computer at school, while 9,000 primary and secondary schools would be connected to a new high-speed broadband network under Rudd’s plan. Declaring he wanted “to turn every secondary school into a digital school,” Rudd criticized current Prime Minister John Howard: “Mr Howard seems to believe that providing our young people with computers is exotic. Mr Howard just doesn’t get it. Around the rest of the world, providing young people with computers isn’t exotic—it’s mainstream…” (The Age, Australia)

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Webcast highlights low-cost computing options

Nearly everyone involved in educational technology has heard by now of the XO computer, the $188 laptop specially designed for kids in developing nations. But there are other low-cost, ultra-portable computing devices that schools should be aware of, too, said participants in a Nov. 14 webcast hosted by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Like bargain-hunters at a sale, ed-tech leaders came together to compare ultra-portable devices and talk about affordable one-to-one computing options during the webcast, titled “Ultra Light Portable Devices in K-12: The Quest for a $100 Device.” Presenters discussed various options for ultra-portable computers (UPCs), and one district—California’s Lemon Grove School District—described a successful UPC project.

“Investing in a UPC takes a lot of consideration,” said Bob Tinker, chief executive officer for the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit ed-tech research and development organization based in Concord, Mass. “The first thing you have to do before you purchase is stop thinking about what you don’t want—and start making a list of what you do want.”

Tinker believes there are six pivotal UPC capabilities that each school or district needs to take into consideration before buying. Should the UPC be able to: (1) Browse the internet? (2) Browse the internet and run Flash? (3) Run some unusual, creative software? (4) Use productivity software packages? (5) Execute Java applications? (6) Run probeware applications?

Jim Rapoza, technology analyst for eWeek, said educators also must remember that the focus “shouldn’t be the price. The technology is the real difference maker.”

Tinker and Rapoza described three existing UPC models. The first was the XO computer, from the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child initiative.

What sets this device apart from the competition is its unique design. According to tests conducted by Rapoza, the XO’s innovative screen can be viewed in direct sunlight or in the dark equally well. The XO also can run on very low power, about one-tenth that of other laptops its size. Users can generate this power via solar energy or a pull cord.

The XO also contains built-in wireless mesh networking that connects multiple laptops to each other and to a central network through a connection that hops from laptop to laptop. This mesh network allows for powerful collaboration and teamwork.

The device runs on a customized version of the Linux operating system, called Sugar, and includes time-based file and task management. It comes with a wide range of programming and open learning tools.

“There’s a built-in webcam, a 256 megabyte DRAM, and a 1 gigabyte flash disk,” explained Tinker.

Installed applications include open-source music, browser, multimedia, authoring, graphics, and gaming software. The device also runs TEEMSS—the Technology Enhanced Elementary and Middle School Science project, developed by the Concord Consortium and funded by the National Science Foundation. The project allows students in grades 3-8 to collect real-time science data, work in groups, and share results.

Drawbacks to the XO include its small drive size, its lack of support for commercial eLearning and classroom management tools, and its limited availability in the United States.

“The XO has just been pushed into full production in the last few weeks,” said Rapoza. “It’s only being deployed in developing countries right now.”

The One Laptop Per Child organization has opened up sales of the XO computer to U.S. residents for a limited time only, until Nov. 26. But U.S. residents must pay $400 for the devices, with the extra money paying for a computer for a child in a developing country.

The second UPC option Tinker mentioned was the Intel Classmate, which runs Windows XP or Linux. It has a 1- or 2-gigabyte flash drive capacity and can run Microsoft Office or Open Office applications.

The third option he discussed was the less well-known Nova5000 tablet computer from Fourier Systems, which runs on Windows CE software. Applications for this device include productivity, drawing, handwriting recognition, and probe software—though probeware comes only on a more expensive version.

“Hardware has a mind of its own, so it’s good to recognize a UPC’s personality,” said Tinker. “Think of the XO as a constructivist, the Classmate as a teacher, and the Nova5000 as an experimental scientist. Once you know these personalities, you can choose one that best suits your schools’ needs.” Schools need to match their purchases with their preferred educational goals, he added.

Even though the XO is not available yet in the United States (the limited-time “Give One, Get One” program notwithstanding), it already has had a huge impact on the marketplace, webcast speakers said.

“With new technology like the XO comes the possibility of even more creative design in the future,” said Rapoza. The XO “has [spurred], and will continue to spur, competition and growth in low-cost systems.”

A customized solution

Taking a different approach to implementing a UPC solution, the Lemon Grove School District in California—with 15,000 students of diverse backgrounds—has designed its own UPC model, called the e-pad.

“We wanted to have a learning environment that was personalized, engaging, data-driven, and featured online assessment,” said Darryl LaGace, director of information services for Lemon Grove.

The district has provided access for all students, with a 2-to-1 student-to-computer ratio in grades K-5, and a 1-to-1 ratio for grades 6-8. All students and teachers are issued a wireless e-pad in these middle grades, and students are given broadband internet access at home.

Including the e-pad devices and broadband access, the cost is just under $300 per student, per year, over a five-year acquisition cycle.

So far, the district reportedly has experienced improved student and teacher attitudes toward technology and an increase in student motivation. Attendance has increased, too, which, according to LaGace, has resulted in $100,000 in additional state funding for average daily attendance. Language-arts scores also have increased.

The e-pad is a web-based thin client with no hard drive. Because it doesn’t have a hard drive, it can be ruggedized—meaning it can withstand a hard impact, such as a fall of four to six feet. Students experience a simplified interface, as well as textbooks embedded on the chip.

With textbooks on the e-pad, students can view animation and links, and they can read and hear in both English and Spanish. However, because of the need to view textbooks on the devices, Lemon Grove spent a little extra to have e-pads with a 10.4-inch screen.

The district worked with Interlink Electronics to develop its customized solution.

“We think customizing your UPC for your specific district’s needs is worth the little extras you might have to spend,” LaGace concluded.


Consortium for School Networking

Concord Consortium

One Laptop Per Child

Intel’s Classmate PC

Fourier Systems’ Nova5000

Lemon Grove School District’s e-pad


Computer donations extend learning into homes

Sacramento students who are the children of immigrant parents are getting help learning English after school hours, thanks to a successful program designed by Luther Burbank High School teacher Larry Ferlazzo. Ferlazzo has provided home computers to these children in hopes that the lessons will reach family members as well, reports the Sacramento Bee. “It’s like another school for them at home,” parent Mai Chao Vang said through a translator. “I’m extremely excited and thankful for the computer. I think it’s a very big opportunity, not just for me, but for the entire family” … (Sacbee)

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IM helps teens avoid embarrassment

Sure, instant messaging is fast and efficient. For many teenagers, though, it’s also a great way to avoid the embarrassment of mortifying face-to-face confrontations. More than four in 10, or 43 percent, of teens who instant message use it for things they wouldn’t say in person, according to an Associated Press-AOL poll released Nov. 15. Twenty-two percent use IMs to ask people out on dates or accept them, and 13 percent use them to break up. Overall, nearly half of teens age 13 to 18 said they use instant messaging, while only about one in five adults said they use IMs-revealing a wide generation gap in the use of the technology … (Associated Press)

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Campus file-sharing battle erupts anew

To the dismay of many college and university leaders, Congress seems intent on imposing tough new requirements aimed at preventing students from sharing protected music and video files over the internet.

It’s a battle that higher education’s representatives in Washington thought they had won–or, at least, had put to rest for a while–after fighting successfully in early July against a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that would have required colleges to use technological means to curb so-called digital piracy.

Reid’s proposal, which was intended to become part of a then-pending bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, was withdrawn in the face of heavy opposition from academic representatives. The Senate then passed the reauthorization bill, 95-0, with a provision calling on academic institutions to caution students against “unauthorized peer-to-peer [P2P] file sharing.”

But two recent moves in the House of Representatives suggest that bipartisan support is growing for stronger provisions against digital piracy on campuses.

One of those actions came on Nov. 9, when Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee introduced language that would require colleges to develop plans both to provide “alternatives” to peer-to-peer file sharing and to test “technology- based deterrents.” Institutions that failed to comply could forfeit their students’ eligibility for federal financial aid.

A month earlier, leading Republicans on the House committee introduced language to impose essentially the same anti-piracy requirements that college representatives had succeeded in blocking in the Senate in early July.

Now, with the House panel moving to create specific language for its version of the reauthorization bill, some anti-piracy provisions that many colleges have opposed seem likely to survive–although it remains uncertain how stringent those provisions will be and how soon Congress will vote on a final bill.

Meanwhile, higher education’s relations with the entertainment industry, which has been lobbying for tough requirements, have been deteriorating–so much so that the situation could jeopardize continuing efforts to resolve campus-based electronic copying issues on mutually acceptable terms.

The conflict has flared anew, moreover, at a time when representatives of film and music companies–principally the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)–have taken an increasingly aggressive stance against so-called digital piracy. The industry’s cause drew fresh encouragement on Oct. 4 when, in the first case of its kind to go to trial, a federal jury ordered a Minnesota woman to pay $222,000 for sharing copyrighted music online. (See “Illegal downloader ordered to pay $222K”.) And on Oct. 12, in yet another sign that entertainment companies are feeling more empowered these days, RIAA sued the global network Usenet.com for allegedly harboring millions of copyrighted recordings.

Legislative efforts to link colleges’ anti-piracy actions to their students’ financial-aid eligibility have angered many campus leaders. In response to the House Republicans’ proposal, for example, Educause, a nonprofit association that promotes the “intelligent use of information technology” in higher education, argued that such a link would particularly hurt lower-income students.

Academic leaders have made a similar argument against the House Democrats’ proposal. Earlier, in presenting a series of “talking points” to its members and constituents across the country, Educause also raised these objections to the Republicans’ measure:

  • It would give “unprecedented authority” to the Secretary of Education to identify the 25 colleges receiving the highest number of written allegations of copyright infringement each year. Educause said the language would make the Secretary “an agent of the entertainment industry.”

  • The measure would rely on unverifiable data and would give the entertainment industry control over which institutions to target and the method for identifying “alleged offenders.”

  • Colleges would be required to “take technological steps to block allegedly infringing material … when there is no consensus on what technology can adequately and accurately accomplish that goal.”

  • The legislation would unfairly single out colleges when “the majority of infringements occur on commercial networks.” In addition, Educause said, the measure would do “nothing to educate or intercede with pre-college-age students, when most of the illegal P2P activity is learned using home computers running on commercial networks.”

    Mark A. Luker, an Educause vice president and a leader of higher education’s campaign against the Republicans’ measure, said recently that the push by film and music companies to obtain punitive legislation was problematic for colleges and made it “very hard to work with them” on a cooperative approach.

    In the background, as anti-piracy lobbyists have persisted with calls for tougher action against unauthorized digital copying and file sharing on campuses, a group of academic and entertainment industry representatives has met to explore the prospects for finding common ground.

    A key question has been whether new technological approaches might effectively prevent illegal file sharing over campus networks, without compromising legitimate copying or forcing colleges into a “policing” role that many of them consider to be contrary to their missions.

    The colleges’ position has presented them with a tactical challenge because, in opposing what they believe would be an ill-advised government intrusion into campus affairs, they run the risk of appearing to be “soft” on illegal duplication of copyrighted material–a characterization they reject.

    Advocates of the entertainment industry’s viewpoint, meanwhile, have sought to capitalize on the notion that, in opposing federal anti-piracy legislation, some college leaders seem to be making what an industry spokesman called “a conscious decision not to enforce the law.”

    The spokesman, Patrick Ross, executive director of the Copyright Alliance, a nonprofit organization, said he was “sympathetic” to colleges’ concerns about a heavy-handed government role, but he called Educause’s opposition “extreme.” “What’s the alternative?” Ross asked. “That we just tolerate massive infringement” of copyright laws? He added: “I think there is a big bipartisan consensus that [the problem] has really been going on long enough.”

    The anti-piracy language proposed in the House on Nov. 9 was part of a bill advanced by the Education and Labor Committee’s chairman, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. The earlier Republican proposal came from the committee’s ranking minority member, Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, R-Calif., and Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla.


    Educause material on file sharing

    Copyright Alliance

    Motion Picture Association of America

    Recording Industry Association of America

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    Students can apply to college through Facebook

    CNET blogger Caroline McCarthy writes about a new application from Embark that lets students apply to college through the online social-networking phenomenon Facebook. Called College Planner, this widget lets prospective college students research schools and then apply to them without actually leaving their Facebook profiles. Users also can see which people on their “friends” list are interested in the same schools. “Actually, now I think I know what’s unnerving about the Embark application,” McCarthy writes. “It’s the fact that this is a Facebook application that actually could be useful” … (CNET)

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    Stakeholders ‘speak up’ for 21st-century skills

    Students, parents, teachers, and now—for the first time—K-12 administrators are invited to take part in Speak Up 2007, an annual survey that seeks to determine what is needed to give students a top-notch, 21st-century education.

    Administered by Project Tomorrow (formerly known as NetDay), a national nonprofit group focused on improving science, math, and technology education, Speak Up gives education stakeholders a chance to make their voices heard and contribute to an ongoing discussion about technology’s role in the curriculum.

    “National and state leaders look for the Speak Up data each year to gain insight from education stakeholders about how to fix America’s education system in order to ensure our continued global competitiveness. The survey is an avenue for everyone—students, parents, teachers, and school administrators—to participate in this national conversation,” said Julie Evans, chief executive of Project Tomorrow.

    “At the same time, we also provide participating schools and districts with their own Speak Up data to inform and impact local policies, programs, and budgeting and purchasing decisions,” Evans said.

    All public, private, parochial, and charter schools in the United States and Canada are eligible to participate. Individual responses are kept confidential, and the online survey can be accessed any time until Dec. 15.

    New this year is the addition of questions for school and district leaders, including principals, district administrators, and school board members. The survey now invites school leaders to share their opinions about how technology and science education can be leveraged to give students the skills they need to succeed in a digital economy.

    Given the importance of education in the upcoming 2008 presidential election, Project Tomorrow says, Speak Up 2007 includes new questions to help stimulate national and local discussions. These new questions will address topics such as student interest (and parent support) in science, math, and technology careers and the “national competitiveness” agenda; using Web 2.0 tools such as MySpace in school; views on the importance of so-called “21st-century skills,” such as critical thinking and learning a second language; the value of emerging technologies in education, such as video games, cell phones, MP3 players, and other portable computing devices; and designing the ultimate school for the 21st-century learner.

    “We highly value the Speak Up [survey information], because it gives us unique insights into the views of our students on emerging technologies and their aspirations for a 21st-century education,” said Sharnell Jackson, chief eLearning officer for the Chicago Public Schools. “We use [these] data to shape new programs, to inform our budgeting and purchasing processes, to train our teachers, and to engage our parents and our Chicago business and civic leaders in an effort to improve learning opportunities for every child.”

    Quantitative survey results are available to participating schools and districts free of charge, so they can use the local data for their own planning and community discussion. National findings are released through a variety of venues, including a congressional briefing in Washington, D.C., national and regional conferences, eMail distribution, Project Tomorrow’s web site, and Speak Up partner organizations.

    Over the past four years, close to 1 million students, parents, and educators from coast to coast have participated in Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up surveys. The group expects roughly 325,000 K-12 students, teachers, parents, and school leaders will submit Speak Up surveys this year.

    Speak Up 2007 is sponsored by CDW-G, SMART Technologies, PASCO Scientific, Futurekids, and KI Education. It also is supported through a network of more than 100 nonprofit education, business, and community partners, including the State Educational Technology Directors Association, the Consortium for School Networking, and the National School Boards Association.


    Project Tomorrow

    SpeakUp 2007