High-tech gadgets top kids’ holiday lists

Savvy school leaders know the key to engaging students is to understand their tastes and interests. That’s why a snapshot of the hottest selling items this holiday season—which reveals that even children as young as preschool are gravitating toward high-tech gadgets, instead of more traditional toys—has important implications for schools.

For educators teaching in classrooms with little access to technology, the iPhone on six-year-old Hilary Roberts’s wish list can’t be a good sign.

“She’s not after a doll,” says her father, Scott Roberts, an internet executive from San Francisco. “There’s not one traditional gift she’s asking for this year. She’s asking: ‘Can I have an iPhone?’”

With one weekend left before Christmas, the toy industry finds itself on the defensive, beset by a host of consumer electronic products. Besides Apple Inc.’s offerings to worry about, toy makers are competing with resurging popularity of entertainment systems from Nintendo Co., Sony Corp., and Microsoft Corp., along with several recently released video game titles—such as “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.”

The competition reflects the toy industry’s, and educators’, ongoing struggle against “age compression,” the phenomenon of young children reaching for items used by older kids or even adults. These days, children are grabbing for more adult experiences at ever-younger ages, making it ever harder for traditional toys—and, by extension, traditional classroom techniques—to capture kids’ imagination.

According to market research firm NPD Group Inc. of Port Washington, N.Y., children begin playing with computers at age five-and-a-half; CDs and DVD players around age six; and music players around age eight—all slightly younger than two years ago.

What’s more, toy purchases are expected to come in fourth this year in overall spending, after electronics, clothes, and gift cards, according to a recent study by the National Retail Federation.

Responding to the desire among ever-younger children for high-tech devices, the toy industry has fashioned electronic gadgetry of its own, cheaper than the adult alternatives and more geared toward young kids, including video game tie-ins for preschoolers and branded consumer electronics such as digital cameras. This year, toy makers also have released a host of social-networking web sites aimed at snapping up potential users of MySpace and Facebook before age compression overtakes them, too.

Evelyn Viohl, the design vice president at Mattel Inc., says the game plan has been changing to realign operations with the fickle tastes of children, particularly the hard-to-get ’tween set of kids ages eight to 12 who flock online.

“We’re in a different place than we were in four years ago,” she says of her own design labs, where it’s not a question of combating high-tech gadgets, she says, but rather making a “fusion of different play patterns with electronics.” That has meant more dependence on engineers and “designers [who] are into gaming” to bring in new product lines that will appeal to tech-savvy kids, she says.

The fruits of this push are already apparent online. The company enters the holidays with Barbiegirls.com, a social-networking site for girls tied into a Barbie-shaped MP3 player. The site, where girls are invited to join a virtual world based on the brand, is free to users and takes its cues from Second Life, an adult-age virtual world without the branded theme. More than 8.4 million users already have registered. Competitor MGA Entertainment Inc. also released a site of its own, Be-Bratz.com, for its sassy Bratz doll.

These sites follow on the heels of other popular social-networking sites for preteens, such as Webkinz and Clubpenguin.

The sites seem to have enough appeal to wean youngsters from game consoles, says Richards Gilbert, a consultant in San Francisco. His 10-year-old daughter heads straight to Walt Disney Co.’s Clubpenguin networking site, where cartoon avatars waddle around in a snow world. “You could take all their toys away,” he says. “Just give them a computer, Xbox, and gadgets, they’d be happy.”

Today’s toys are getting more high-tech, even for preschoolers who usually reach for low-tech building blocks. The Smart Cycle Physical Learning Arcade System, from Mattel’s Fisher-Price unit, is a miniature treadmill-like bicycle toy that has proved a hot seller this year, marketed to parents concerned with childhood obesity. But the pitch also has extended to what the company sees as tech-thirsty toddlers—the toy ties up to a video game that simulates a bicycle ride.

Hong Kong-based VTech Holdings Ltd. is offering a line called the Tote & Go Laptop Plus, a kiddie computer with an LCD screen that teaches three-year-olds math, language, and music lessons. (Thanks to products such as this, it’s easy to imagine a generation of children who already are accustomed to learning from a computer before they even start school—yet who begin school in an environment with little access to technology.)

And some companies have pulled the gloves off entirely this holiday season, creating lines of kid-oriented gadgets they hope will compete directly with consumer electronics.

This season, for instance, Nickelodeon—a unit of Viacom Inc.’s MTV Networks that also licenses toys—launched NPower, a line of digital cameras, music players, and DVD players branded with characters such as SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer.

“I like to think of kids as the chief technology officers of their families,” says Leigh Anne Brodsky, president of Nickelodeon’s consumer-products division.


NPD Group Inc.

Mattel Inc.

VTech Holdings Ltd.



Indiana adopts K-2 formative assessment in reading, math

Indiana has selected Wireless Generation to serve the state’s kindergarten through 2nd grade classrooms with formative assessments in reading and math. Wireless Generation’s handheld computer-based mCLASS:Reading 3D and mCLASS:Math assessments will enable Indiana teachers to target instruction to each student’s needs, and monitor each student’s progress toward mastery. Under the two-year agreement with renewal options, Wireless Generation will provide the assessments; as well as Web-based reporting, data analysis, and instructional planning tools, and professional development to help Indiana educators become skilled in using data to guide their instruction.

While all states have a testing program that begins in third grade, Indiana is the first state to select a comprehensive formative assessment system for every K-2 classroom as well. Other states are considering similar programs, in light of a growing body of research showing that frequently assessing and understanding students’ progress during the school year has a significant positive impact on teaching and learning.

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New online community connects nation’s best science, math students

The Siemens Foundation, which is dedicated to improving math and science education, has launched an interactive web site for the alumni of all Siemens Foundation scholarship programs. Winners of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology, the Siemens Awards for Advanced Placement, the Siemens Teacher Scholarships, and the Siemens Merit Scholarships now have a dedicated online community space. Modeled after Facebook and taglined “Connect to the Future,” the Siemens Scholar Network gives members multiple opportunities for networking. These range from groups and blogs for staying in touch with Siemens program participants, to news about alumni; Siemens-sponsored, on-campus events; and volunteer opportunities. “We created this new site to foster a greater sense of community among Siemens Scholars and connect them to other young people who share the same passion for math and science,” said James Whaley, president of the Siemens Foundation. More than 2,500 individuals have participated in Siemens Foundation programs since 1998.



Wireless WAN creates new learning opportunities

When David Mabe first sat down at his desk as the new deputy executive director of the sprawling Northeast Texas Regional Education Telecommunications Network (NTRETN), a folder on his desk revealed his mission: to fix the wide area network that provided internet services to the entire region. NTRETN is a consortium of 51 school districts in Northeast Texas spanning more than 5,000 square miles, 150 campuses, and 150,000 students. Most of its member districts are very rural and lack many bandwidth options.

David spotted four significant problem areas:

  1. All of the districts were connected via T1 links, with only 1.5 Mbps of bandwidth to the entire district. Because of their rural location, service providers would not extend fiber to their areas. These were the very schools that would benefit the most from distance learning and other web-based learning applications, but they were hamstrung because of a lack of bandwidth.

  1. The DS3 link, a 45 Mbps link connecting districts located in the Dallas area to the Longview area, was costing an astronomical $150,000 each year because of long-distance charges.

  1. Several of the larger districts were discussing leaving the consortium to find services on their own. If the larger districts left, it would be catastrophic for the consortium because there wouldn’t be enough funding. Although the larger districts could find other solutions, the smaller, rural districts would be devastated. David pleaded with them to “please hang on” as he scrambled to find a solution.

  1. His staff worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, but network issues happened around the clock.

David is not a technology expert and had never built a wide area network, but he was not the kind of person to back down from a challenge. At the age of 16, he lost his left hand in an accident while working as a mechanic, changing his life forever. He quickly developed the mindset that he wanted to do everything “normally” and do it even better—creating a fiercely competitive drive in him. David would draw from that tenacity over the next 15 months as he ventured to be the first regional consortium in Texas to deploy a wireless broadband wide area network.

The project would require coordinating 46 school boards, 46 superintendents, 46 technology directors, and 46 facilities managers located across the region. (At the start of the project there were 46 districts; five additional districts have since joined the consortium.) The first order of business would be to convince these leaders of his vision. “There were political issues we needed to overcome, and at times the process was agonizing,” he said.

From acquisition to implementation

After looking at many possible solutions from a variety of vendors, David decided to hire Trillion Partners Inc., located in Austin, Texas, to provide the point-to-point wireless wide area network to connect his 51 school districts. The network would provide a 10 to 100 Mbps connection to each district in the consortium, offering them 10 percent to 100 percent more bandwidth than they had previously. The network also would support Quality of Service (QoS), enabling it to deliver high-quality voice and video—something the previous network could not do. Because NTRETN was taking charge as a single customer, long-distance fees no longer applied, saving more than $150,000 each year. NTRETN was able to take advantage of the eRate program to further reduce its costs.

The project, which involved the construction of 81 point-to-point wireless links, was handled in two phases and took only nine months to complete. With the project completed, the new high-speed network enabled administrators, educators, and students to better use technology and greatly enhanced the educational process.

David understandably talks with pride about the network. “The network has had a significant impact on the curriculum taught in our schools today,” he says. “For example, all model lessons of our curriculum project now have unitedstreaming [a video-on-demand service from Discovery Education] embedded in them. Many of our districts have gone to web-based student information systems and are taking advantage of distance learning and even taking virtual field trips. This would have been impossible with the previous network.”

Video conferencing saves time and money

Thanks to its new network, NTRETN also is offering video conferencing services to its member districts, saving time and money throughout the region. For example, NTRETN recently trained district IT directors on its content filtering and bandwidth shaping applications. Instead of 51 IT directors losing a day of work to travel to Mt. Pleasant for the training, they attended the two-hour training via video conference. Those who could not make the training can watch the recorded version. This is just one of many examples of how video conferencing is being used throughout the region.

VoIP service brings advanced telephony to districts

Last year, David again partnered with Trillion to offer Voice over IP (VoIP) services to his member school districts. Ten of the districts have taken advantage of the service, and he expects many more districts to join this year.

“Many of our districts had antiquated phone systems, and inter-district calls incurred long-distance charges,” he says. “Because the VoIP service is Priority One eRate-eligible, districts are receiving a solid telephone service at a very low price. Our districts can communicate better internally with applications such as unified messaging and Follow Me/Find Me. There is an additional cost savings, because member districts can make intra-WAN calls without incurring long-distance fees.”

Extending his team and its resources

David was able to solve his staffing issue by teaming up with his service provider, Trillion Partners. Trillion provides 24-by-7 monitoring and management of the WAN and VoIP services. “They have taken us out of the network business so we can focus on serving our schools—what we’re best at,” he says.

David is a big believer in the “power of the consortium.” In 2002 he created a Purchasing Co-op that now enables districts in four states to purchase commodity items such as PCs, servers, and switches at a steep discount. The Purchasing Co-op has attracted more than 800 schools, which gives it tremendous purchasing power. “I get so excited when I see that a small district such as Marietta, with only 50 kids, can get the same discount as a big school in Houston with 5,000 kids,” he says.

Some people talk about making a difference. Other people do it. David Mabe doesn’t back down from a challenge. Because of his drive and determination, his team’s projects have completely transformed the learning environment for 51 Texas school districts—giving them access to technology and applications that are having a day-to-day impact in the classroom.


Northeast Texas Regional Education Telecommunications Network

Trillion Partners Inc.


When the bullies turned faceless

Cellphone cameras and text messages, as well as social networking Web sites, e-mail and instant messaging, all give teenagers a wider range of ways to play tricks on one another, to tease and to intimidate their peers.

And unlike traditional bullying, which usually is an intimate, if highly unpleasant, experience, high-tech bullying can happen anywhere, anytime, among lots of different children who may never actually meet in person. It is inescapable and often anonymous, said sociologists and educators who have studied cyberbullying.

Even in Dardenne Prairie, Mo., where cyber bullying victim Megan Meier lived before hanging herself after being taunted online, adolescents say they love using the technology — and some do a little bullying of their own.

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At 71, physics professor is a web star

Walter H. G. Lewin, 71, a physics professor, has long had a cult following at M.I.T. And he has now emerged as an international Internet guru, thanks to the global classroom the institute created to spread knowledge through cyberspace.

Professor Lewin’s videotaped physics lectures, free online on the OpenCourseWare of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have won him devotees across the country and beyond who stuff his e-mail in-box with praise.

Professor Lewin delivers his lectures with the panache of Julia Child bringing French cooking to amateurs and the zany theatricality of YouTube’s greatest hits. He is part of a new generation of academic stars who hold forth in cyberspace on their college Web sites and even, without charge, on iTunes U, which went up in May on Apple’s iTunes Store.

In his lectures at ocw.mit.edu, Professor Lewin beats a student with cat fur to demonstrate electrostatics. Wearing shorts, sandals with socks and a pith helmet — nerd safari garb — he fires a cannon loaded with a golf ball at a stuffed monkey wearing a bulletproof vest to demonstrate the trajectories of objects in free fall.

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Digital textbooks expand for K-12 students

A shift toward digital textbooks for kindergarten through high school not only is updating the way students learn, it’s changing the business model for Pearson, one of the world’s largest publishers of school textbooks.

The essence of its expansion into digital products can be seen at the United Kingdom-based company’s new innovation center in Chandler, Ariz.

Pearson, which employs about 700 people in Arizona, already has a contract to supply 45% of California school districts with history textbooks.

These textbooks have no paper — they’re online. By entering a password on the Internet, teachers, students and parents can access a digital textbook, which combines traditional print content with interactive audio features, animation, tutorials, games and videos.

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‘Coursecasting’ now a higher-education staple

Delivering lectures via podcasts no longer is the province only of those universities on the cutting edge of technology: Through the use of software and programs that make it easy to produce and distribute podcasts, colleges and universities increasingly are making course lectures available for downloading online.

Most of today’s college students are “digital natives” who have been surrounded by technology nearly their entire lives, and they expect their college or university to create a collaborative experience that integrates familiar technologies such as podcasting and on-demand video into their learning environment, supporters of the phenomenon explain. Their beliefs are supported by data: Three of four young adults download and view internet videos daily, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, while Burst Media reports that college students spend more time online than they do using any other form of media, including TV and radio.

At the University of California at Berkeley, a survey of incoming freshman this past fall revealed that students considered podcasting to be just as important as wireless internet access or campus eMail. Video podcasting storage and distribution via Apple’s iTunes U and Google’s YouTube have necessitated a scalable network for Berkeley’s open-content initiative: webcast.berkeley.

Berkeley’s associate vice chancellors, Susanna A. Castillo-Robson and Shelton Waggener, sponsored the study, called “Information Technology at UC Berkeley: The Student Experience.” Eight Berkeley staff members participating in the university’s Leadership Development Program conducted the survey.

Its objectives were to evaluate the technology needs and expectations of incoming students, provide recommendations for closing the gap between these expectations and what the university currently offers, and propose a method for ongoing, campus-wide evaluation of student IT needs.

When asked if they would like to be able to download a greater number of class lectures in the form of podcasts or webcasts, 72.5 percent of students said yes. Students said they could use the podcasts or webcasts in case they missed class, and they would be able to review their notes more easily while listening to the lecture.

“Since we launched the [podcasting] offering in 2006, we saw 2 million downloads of our podcasts in the first year alone from our iTunes U channel. We have had 650,000 views in the first two weeks of our YouTube channel launch. Interest in our content has exploded,” said Adam Hochman, project manager for Berkeley’s Education Technology Services department.

Like its iTunes Store, Apple Inc.’s iTunes U has become enormously popular since its launch in late 2005. Now, hundreds of colleges and universities use the free service to distribute their digital content to students and the world at large.

Berkeley also has started a movement to develop free podcasting software, and more than 30 other colleges and institutions have joined in the effort. Although the project is only in its initial phases, many say it indicates that the podcasting movement is thriving at colleges and universities.

Called OpenCast, the system is slated to debut in the fall of 2008. The system is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but it nevertheless will be available to other schools.

“UC Berkeley has taken steps to develop a flexible object model that will allow other schools to potentially participate in a broader community-source initiative,” according to the OpenCast web site.

Another system for capturing lectures, called CourseCast, was developed at Carnegie Mellon University and is being offered free of charge to qualified academic institutions. The software uses standard PCs to capture video and audio, index and archive it, and stream it over the internet. Students then have on-demand access to these indexed lectures.

Panopto, the company that makes CourseCast, created the Socrates Project to distribute and develop the technology to qualified institutions, which include colleges, universities, and K-12 schools. Members of the Socrates Project will participate in ongoing beta testing and development programs to enhance the technology, and in exchange, they will receive free access to the CourseCast platform.

“The goal of the Socrates Project is to allow other academic institutions to deploy CourseCast, thus delivering on part of Panopto’s charter to give back to academia,” said William L. Scherlis, founding director of Carnegie Mellon’s Ph.D. program in software engineering and co-inventor of CourseCast.

“We have captured thousands of lectures, and there have been more than 100,000 viewings to date. CourseCast is used by on-campus students, by disabled students, for distance education, and for many other purposes.”

Members of the Socrates Project include Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh (UP), and the University of Pittsburgh Medical College’s Institute for Clinical Research.

“What captured our attention about CourseCast was the technical architecture of the product and its potential for the future, particularly its flexibility and scalability,” said Nicholas Laudato, associate director of instructional technology at UP’s Center for Instructional Development and Distance Learning.

“An important example of this is its simple, web-based interface that allows lecturers to edit their recorded presentations, making multiple versions that target selected topics without modifying the original content,” Laudato said.

For example, he said, instead of providing students with a link to a two-hour recording, which few might actually view, the instructor can create an instructional sequence and embed it in a course management system–such as Blackboard–by providing links to multiple extracted recordings interspersed with learning objectives, readings, and activities.

The software “can accomplish this without the cost or cognitive overhead of high-end video editing applications, freeing the instructor from dependence on specialized technologists,” Laudato said. “CourseCast has the potential to do for streaming rich media content what Blackboard did for course web pages–that is, make it available to all faculty, regardless of their level of technical sophistication.”

“We’ve been a very satisfied user of CourseCast for over a year now. As a charter member of the Socrates Project, our collaboration with Panopto has yielded real innovations in their product line and dramatically reduced our implementation costs in the process,” said Sue Alman, director of distance education at UP’s School of Information Sciences.

In spring 2006, Anystream debuted its Apreso podcasting product, which originally was adopted by large media outlets to convert digital footage of broadcasts for redistribution on the web.

The Apreso software can be loaded onto an existing podium PC in a media-enhanced lecture hall, or onto a separate machine dedicated to its use. Once installed, the solution can be configured to work with classroom hardware, including microphones and installed video recorders, to capture a full video of the professor’s lecture automatically. In older classrooms, where video recordings are not an option, Apreso can be configured to record all visual presentations, including PowerPoint slides and other electronic applications.

Last year, George Washington University equipped six classrooms with Apreso Podcast to capture lecture content automatically and convert it instantly into podcasts playable on iPods and from within iTunes U.

“Many of our professors are uniquely qualified in multi-modality teaching styles to cater to a wider student body. These varying teaching methods require a level of in-class flexibility,” said Derek Parker, an instructional technologist at Lynn University, which also began using the product this summer.

“Students with learning differences benefit from the repetitious multi-sensory playback of powerful lectures,” said Parker.

Other companies that offer coursecasting solutions include Codian (now owned by video-conferencing leader Tandberg) and Advanced Media Design.

Charles Fadel, global leader for education at Cisco Systems, noted that students are driving the podcasting movement in schools.

“Just as we’ve seen an influx of consumer technologies into the workplace, students are setting their university’s IT agenda by demanding access to the same internet services that they enjoy at home,” said Fadel. “How this trend plays out in higher education depends on how successfully a school takes advantage of the network’s full potential.”


Information Technology at UC Berkeley: The Student Experience





Opening up free content on the web

Last week, Susan Leib, 20, accomplished something in a whirlwind. Just 10 years ago it would’ve taken months.

As a Global Information Systems student from the eastern edge of Tornado Alley, the Quad Cities, she wondered whether tornadoes persist longer under warm temperatures. Her Olivet professor supplied analytics and software, but data was a problem.

“A lot of the information I found on the Internet was perfect, but it cost between $100 and $200 to download,” she explained from a geology lab last week.

But as unpredictable as a cyclone turn, she landed in databanks at Iowa State University. The records were online and free. It turns out warm temps do influence the life span of a twister. Global warming theorists think about such things.

Without free data she’d continue exasperated, like Dorothy looking for Kansas. But thanks to the “open content” movement, and Iowa State’s participation, Leib’s questions and thousands of others can be answered now, without charge.

The idea first stirred among intellectuals in the late ’90s on the idealistic proposition that free, online information in the hands of self-learners would exponentially expand knowledge across the world.

But the movement was also practical. Science professionals needed to “combat hugely overpriced science journals by publishing their own,” according to Instructional Services librarian Jasmine Cieszynski. The combined price for all university-level science journals, electronic and print, currently goes for about $23,000 per year.

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Baltimore teachers go to web for funding

A Polytechnic Institute biology teacher wants $1,169 for an LCD projector.

An eighth-grade special-education teacher at Winston Middle School seeks $1,000 worth of graphing calculators.

And a teacher at Booker T. Washington Middle School needs another $261 to have enough money to buy 60 copies of Time for Kids: World Report Edition.
“The eighth-grade students of Booker T. Washington Middle School in West Baltimore live in poverty with distractions all around,” the teacher wrote in a request for help. “They need your help to learn about our world and to stay connected with our global community!”

Hundreds of such pleas from Baltimore City public schoolteachers are posted on the Web site donorschoose.org, a place where parents and members of the public – from Baltimore and across the country and even the world – can fund public school projects that range from several hundred dollars to more than $1,000.

City officials launched their participation in the nonprofit Web site this week, though the site has already funded $60,000 worth of projects from 142 proposals from city schools over the past three months, according to Missy Sherburne, executive vice president of the organization. Another 300 projects are waiting to be funded.

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