And the Top 5 …

5. Recording industry amps up its anti-piracy efforts

The tension between the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the nation’s colleges rose to a crescendo in 2007, as the recording industry stepped up its efforts to quash music piracy.

In February, an investigation by the Associated Press revealed that the RIAA had sent thousands more complaints to top universities last year than it did in the previous year, as it targeted music illegally downloaded over campus computer networks. Later that same month, the music industry trade group began a new (and more aggressive) tactic, sending what it called “pre-litigation” letters to schools warning them that a copyright-infringement lawsuit against one of their students was forthcoming. Students who chose to settle immediately would not have to pay as much as they would in a lawsuit, the group said.

In May, Congress lent its considerable weight to the RIAA’s efforts, sending letters to 19 universities admonishing them for their poor record in letting students illegally download music and movies over their networks. The letters also asked for information about the schools’ anti-piracy policies. And in October, the House introduced legislation that would require colleges and universities to use technological means to prevent students from sharing copyright-protected music and video files over the internet.

The higher-education technology group Educause issued an “urgent call to action” in response to the bill, asking educators to voice their opposition to the measure. Educause says the bill would force higher-education institutions to “take technological steps to block allegedly infringing material … when there is no consensus on what technology can adequately and accurately accomplish that goal.”

For students accused of downloading or sharing digital files illegally, the stakes got even higher when a federal jury on Oct. 4 ordered a Minnesota woman to pay $222,000 for sharing copyrighted music online in the first such case to go to trial. The record companies accused Jammie Thomas, 30, a single mother of two sons from Brainerd, Minn., of downloading songs without permission and offering them online through a Kazaa file-sharing account. Thomas denied any wrongdoing and said she would appeal.

See these related stories:

AP: Music companies targeting colleges

RIAA looks to change students’ tune

Congress intervenes in music piracy crackdown

Illegal downloader ordered to pay $222K

House bill reopens campus file-sharing battle

4. Emergency notification systems come to the fore

On the morning of April 16, students and faculty at Virginia Tech were plunged into terror as a gunman prowled the campus. When the ordeal was over, 33 people were dead, including the shooter, student Cho Seung-Hui. In the wake of this terrible tragedy–the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history–schools and colleges across the nation cast a spotlight once again on campus security.

The two hours it took for Virginia Tech officials to eMail students a warning about the gunman on campus raised the question of how schools can get critical news out to stakeholders faster in a crisis–and how technology can help.

Getting word out to students quickly also was the plan at Virginia Tech, where officials had been working on a system that would send emergency alerts to students via text messages on their cell phones. Tragically, that system was not in place April 16, but the university did implement such a system over the summer. So, too, did scores of other institutions in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings.

In September, researchers at Purdue University conducted an experiment to test the speed and reliability of text messaging as a form of emergency communication. They found that text messaging performed well overall, with fewer than 4 percent of messages failing to reach their intended target.

Mass-notification systems also helped schools across Southern California send updates to thousands of parents and students during the devastating wildfires that caused at least $1 billion in damage in San Diego County alone.

But alerting students quickly in the event of a crisis wasn’t educators’ only focus. A handful of schools also implemented services that can track students’ whereabouts via GPS-enabled cell phones and alert campus safety officials automatically if students fail to respond.

Despite such measures, a survey of public school district IT and security directors suggested that school districts rely too heavily on technical solutions to protect their networks and buildings, and they need to focus more attention on communicating and educating their students about physical and cyber dangers. The survey also revealed that districts still rely too heavily on the telephone, and not enough on emerging methods, to communicate with faculty and parents during emergencies.

See these related stories:

Colleges seek better emergency-notification systems

Schools fall short in preparing for emergencies

Campus safety in spotlight

Survey reveals schools’ greatest security needs

Report slams Va. Tech’s response to shootings

Purdue puts emergency texting to the test

Tech keeps parents abreast of wildfires

GPS cell phones enhance campus safety

3. Web fuels ‘democratization’ of knowledge

Educators might look back on 2007 as a tipping point for a movement that has been building for years, thanks to the power of the internet: the democratization of learning.

Though it actually began several years earlier, MIT’s OpenCourseWare project–which makes virtually all the school’s courses, including notes, readings, tests, and often video lectures, available free of charge online–has had a profound effect on education that was most keenly felt this past year.

MIT’s initiative is the largest of its kind, but the trend is rapidly spreading. More than 100 universities worldwide have joined MIT in a consortium of schools promoting open courseware. This past year, Yale University announced it would make material from seven popular courses available online, with 30 more to follow.

As with many technology trends, new services and platforms are driving change. One of these is iTunes U, a section of Apple’s popular music and video downloading service that publicly hosts free material from dozens of colleges. Meanwhile, the University of California, Berkeley last year announced it would be the first to make full course lectures available on YouTube. Berkeley was already posting its lectures online, but YouTube has dramatically expanded the university’s reach.

Berkeley also has started a movement to develop free podcasting software, and more than 30 other colleges and institutions have joined in the effort. 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 past year also saw the debut of several initiatives that aim to make it easy for students and teachers to find and share open courseware and free learning content.

Dubbed the “Wikipedia of curriculum” by its creators, the online community known as Curriki offers a place online where educators from anywhere in the world can post curricula and lesson plans for review and use by fellow classroom teachers. Another new resource, the OER (Open Educational Resources) Commons, makes more than 8,000 classroom materials available to teachers and learners worldwide, at no cost–from primary-source documents to complete course guides on a variety of topics.

The move to make course materials available online, free of charge, comes as colleges and universities say they want to democratize education, making the best resources available to more people. But the schools also have an ulterior motive: They hope such efforts lead to more interest from potential applicants and inspire alumni in far-flung locales to make donations.

“From Yale’s point of view, there still is nothing more important than direct interaction between students and teachers,” says Diana E.E. Kleiner, an art history professor and director of the Yale project. “Putting a selection of our courses online [free of charge] doesn’t change that.”

See these related stories:

Curriki offers new world of course content

Open access to public TV content sought

Open-content learning portal debuts

Web fuels ‘democratization’ of knowledge

Scientists compile massive biology web site

Google’s book scanning faces competition

MIT adapts free online courses for high schools

Another book-scanning project rivals Google’s

Video sites make science more accessible

‘Coursecasting’ now a higher-education staple

2. Low-cost laptop project takes on technology titans … and children are the winners

When former MIT Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte conceived his plan to bridge the technology access gap between rich and developing nations, thereby transforming education for poor students worldwide, he had no idea what kind of trouble he’d be creating.

Three years later, the unique low-cost, low-energy laptops that Negroponte’s project, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), has designed–which run on a customized version of the Linux operating system and are powered by solar energy or a pull cord–have finally started appearing in the hands of children in developing nations. But it has taken much longer than Negroponte originally had thought; the devices cost $188, instead of the target $100 price tag he had sought; and he still doesn’t have nearly as many orders as he had hoped for.

OLPC’s efforts have been undermined by stiff competition from technology giants such as Intel and Microsoft, which initially scoffed at Negroponte’s idea, then–fearing they might be left out of these emerging markets–created their own low-cost solutions.

Intel began marketing a $200 laptop, called the Classmate, to governments in developing nations, and a key selling point is that it runs on Microsoft’s Windows. (Microsoft is testing a version of Windows for OLPC’s XO computer, but it won’t be ready until the second half of 2008.) And in April, Microsoft announced a $3 software package to governments that subsidize student computers used at home and at school.

Although these developments have cost the nonprofit OLPC some business, they’re also helping Negroponte realize his vision. Governments in developing nations now have several low-cost options for giving every student access to technology–and the revolution that Negroponte had hoped for is now under way.

See these related stories:

$100 laptop’s software could be more revolutionary than its price

$3 software suite aims to bridge digital divide

Intel makes peace with ‘$100 laptop’

Low-cost XO laptops to be sold in U.S.

Low-cost school computing set to take off

Low-cost laptop deals heat up

Webcast highlights low-cost computing options

Birmingham mayor seeks low-cost laptops

Microsoft opens Windows to XO laptops

Laptop project enlivens Peruvian hamlet

1. Educational technology comes under attack

In April, the U.S. Department of Education dropped a figurative bomb on the ed-tech community when it released a report showing that the use of certain software programs to help teach reading and math in some 400-plus classrooms did not lead to higher test scores after a year of implementation.

Read the report, and it’s easy to see why: Average use of the programs accounted for only about 10 percent of the total instructional time for the entire school year–well below what the products were designed for. But that fact didn’t stop much of the press from leaping to the too-hasty conclusion that educational technology simply isn’t working.

The fallout from the report, and the coverage it received from the general press, already is being felt in school systems from coast to coast–creating a backlash against school technology in many communities. As the head of one prominent ed-tech organization told eSchool News: “I am hearing from teachers that they are getting calls from parents about those headlines–the parents are taking the headlines at face value, and the teachers don’t know how to respond.”

While the study’s findings certainly point to the need for better software implementation in the nation’s schools, they hardly attest to the effectiveness of the technology itself. And, as eSchool News can testify after nearly a decade of reporting on educational technology, there is actually a mountain of evidence to suggest that, when implemented correctly, technology can make a difference.

More of this evidence surfaced later in the year, when Maine released a study suggesting that its pioneering laptop program has helped boost students’ writing scores. Other states, too, are putting the finishing touches on studies of their own ed-tech initiatives, evaluated through $15 million in federal grants–and an early look at their findings shows some promising results.

That the Bush administration should release such an ill-conceived and potentially damaging report should come as no surprise to many ed-tech supporters, who lobbied hard for Congress to ignore the president’s request once again to cut federal funding for school technology.

Fortunately for schools, the final 2008 federal budget leaves intact the $271 million Enhancing Education Through Technology block-grant program, the largest single source of federal funding for school technology. But, owing to an across-the-board budget cut of 1.75 percent, actual spending for the program will be $267 million this year–thus marking the fifth time in the last six years that federal ed-tech funding has been reduced.

Federal leadership on school technology is lacking, many say, at precisely the time it is needed most.

Profound changes in the world’s economy “make it imperative for the nation to be much more strategic, aggressive, and effective in preparing students to succeed,” says a position paper from three leading ed-tech advocacy groups, released in November. “The rest of the world is catching up in terms of innovation, economic competitiveness, and educational achievement.”

That was never more evident than last month, when the latest results of an international exam in science and math were released. The results showed that U.S. students were outperformed on average by 16 other industrialized countries in science–and by 23 in math.

“There is worldwide competition for people with strong backgrounds in math and science who have the analytic and problem-solving skills needed to create tomorrow’s innovations,” said Business Roundtable President John J. Castellani. “We need to take a serious look at what the U.S. can learn from the education systems that routinely pass us by.”

See these related stories:

Bush budget again would cut E2T2

Experts: Ed tech must change its message

Major study questions value of school software

Editorial: Repeaters, not reporters

eSN Special Report: eSchools Work!

States: Ed tech is raising student achievement

Ed-tech groups issue urgent call to action

School laptop program begets writing gains

Bush vetoes education spending bill

‘…Something needs to be done now’

Final 2008 budget a mixed bag for schools

America Left Behind