From the release of much-ballyhooed technologies such as Apple’s iPhone, to the spread of open-courseware projects that leverage the power of the web to bring education to all corners of the globe, the past year has brought a number of important developments that affect educational technology. In this special retrospective, the editors of eSchool News highlight what we believe are the 10 most significant ed-tech stories of 2007.
10. A former teacher fights to clear her name
It was every educator’s nightmare scenario: Connecticut substitute teacher Julie Amero was teaching class in October 2004 when her desktop computer kept spewing online pornography. Each time she closed one lurid browser window, another would appear. Although Amero claimed the images were inadvertently thrust onto the screen by pornographers’ unseen spyware and adware programs, she was arrested and–in January 2007–convicted of exposing her students to obscene material in what most observers viewed as a gross miscarriage of justice.
Amero’s conviction set off a firestorm of reaction in the blogosphere, with computer experts questioning the prosecutor’s account and the way evidence was collected. eSchool News readers also weighed in with their opinions, which were overwhelmingly in favor of Amero. “Using this substitute teacher as the scapegoat for the school’s lack of action for internet safety is more of a criminal act than having the pop-ups on the screen,” wrote one incensed reader.
Ultimately, common sense appears to have prevailed, and after her sentencing was postponed several times, Amero was granted another trial. But Amero’s plight still has chilling implications for educators nationwide. Said computer consultant Herb Horner, who testified for the defense: “It can happen to anybody.”
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9. eMail retention rules cause confusion among schools
A year ago last month, eSchool News reported on new federal guidelines stemming from a recent Supreme Court ruling that confirmed eMail messages were matters of public record.
The guidelines–which declare 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–have significant implications for school technology departments, especially in places where technicians routinely copy over backup discs and other information housed on school servers.
But the guidelines also have led to confusion in many districts, with educators unsure how–or how long–to store such correspondence. In fact, six months after the federal government issued its rules governing the preservation of electronic communications that might become involved in legal disputes, an informal survey of K-12 school districts suggested that most schools remained woefully unprepared to meet the new requirements.
The rules have left some school officials wondering whether they now must retain much more information in digital form than they have in the past, when only printed documents were saved in certain circumstances. The costs involved in wholesale eMail retention could be prohibitive, they say.
However, according to Lisa Soronen, a senior staff attorney at the National School Boards Association, the new federal rules do not mean that all electronic material must be retained. The key point, she said, is that school districts need to establish policies that make clear which records must be saved–and when they can be safely discarded.
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8. ‘Cyber bullying’ earns greater awareness
Cyber bullying–or harassment perpetrated through eMail, instant messaging, text messaging, blog postings, and other electronic means–generated increased scrutiny in 2007.
In November, officials in the Missouri town of Dardenne Prairie made internet harassment a misdemeanor in the wake of public outrage over the suicide of a 13-year-old resident there last year. The parents of Megan Meier claim their daughter, who had been treated for depression, committed suicide when she thought a teenage boy who flirted with her on MySpace abruptly ended their friendship, telling her he heard she was mean. The story gained national prominence when it was revealed the boy never existed–it was a prank allegedly started by a mother in the girl’s neighborhood.
But even before Dardenne Prairie’s actions, cyber bullying was garnering attention from a growing number of state lawmakers and educators.
A South Carolina law that took effect last year requires school districts to define bullying–including the electronic kind–and outline policies and repercussions for the behavior. Lawmakers in Arkansas, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington also passed or considered measures in 2007 designed to curb cyber bullying in their respective states.
Research supports the need for such measures, with studies suggesting that as many as a third of online teens have been victims of cyber bullying. But questions still remain about how much authority school districts have to police online activity that occurs outside of school.
Writing in the September 2007 issue of eSchool News, award-winning columnist Nora Carr cited this finding by National Association of School Psychologists: “As with other forms of bullying, victims of chronic abuse are more likely to develop depression or low self-esteem, bring weapons to school, or contemplate suicide.”
Carr recommended several steps that parents and educators can take to combat cyber bullying–including updating acceptable-use policies to address online bullying, creating an inclusive climate that fosters acceptance and tolerance, and reporting instances of online harassment to the proper authorities.
“Bullying might be common, but it’s not normal. Teachers, school leaders, parents, and students need to recognize bullying as the antisocial behavior it is and do more to stop it before more children are irreparably harmed,” she concluded.
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7. Social networking adds another dimension to learning
Online social networks already were changing the fabric of teen interaction, and challenging educators in the process, before the year began–and new developments in social networking have only added to this complexity.
For instance, several social-networking web sites targeting children as young as six have emerged–forcing parents (and educators) to teach kids important lessons about internet safety and online etiquette at a much earlier age. And “three-dimensional” social networking also took off in the last year, with dozens of schools and universities creating islands in the popular virtual world of Second Life to help reach students in a familiar medium.
Even political candidates have gotten into the act, with major presidential contenders creating MySpace pages in an effort to lure young voters. In a twist that some viewed as ironic, one of these contenders was Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who last year voted in favor of a bill that would have forced schools and libraries receiving federal e-Rate funds to block access to MySpace and other social-networking tools. (In August, lawmakers introduced a less severe bill that would require schools to teach students about internet safety and block their access to social-networking web sites or chat rooms unless supervised, rather than blocking their access to such sites altogether.)
For educators, perhaps the most intriguing development in online social networking has been the rise in 3-D networking through sites such as Second Life.
The University of New Orleans is one of several schools that established virtual campuses in Second Life in the past year, and it has a practical plan for its presence in the online world: If the New Orleans region should be struck by another monster storm that forces students, teachers, and administrators to scatter widely for an indefinite period, Second Life will allow instructors to set up online classrooms overnight, campus officials said–keeping school functions from shutting down, as they did after Hurricane Katrina, and helping the university hold on to its students.
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6. New technologies make a splash off–and on–campus
The past year saw the introduction of several highly touted technologies that are likely to have an effect on school systems from coast to coast–including Microsoft’s Vista operating system, Apple’s iPhone, a new high-speed wireless networking standard called 802.11n, and Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader.
Although only the earliest school adopters will have felt any impact from these new solutions so far, many school leaders will be watching closely in the coming year to see how these technologies evolve, so they can plan accordingly.
Microsoft officially released Vista for its education and business customers in late 2006, but even by mid-2007 many school technologists were still wary of adopting the software. Tighter security, better search tools, and time-efficient network management were among the benefits that Microsoft listed as reasons for using Vista rather than XP. But compatibility concerns prompted many school systems to delay the switch to Vista, tech-savvy educators told eSchool News in July. The Wi-Fi Alliance (a wireless industry trade group) began certifying wireless “Draft N” products, which take their name from the upcoming 802.11n technical standard, in June. The “n” version of Wi-Fi is expected to be about five times faster than the widely used “g” variety, reaching hypothetical data rates of up to 248 megabits per second. Draft N products also are expected to offer better reach through walls and into dead spots and will use multiple radios to send and receive data, improving the handling of large video files.
Certified Draft N equipment from different vendors is guaranteed to work together and to work with older certified Wi-Fi products, giving the devices an official stamp of approval. But some school leaders who spoke with eSchool News said they planned to wait on purchasing 802.11n gear until the final version of the standard is approved–which isn’t expected until 2009.
With its touch-screen interface and other innovations, Apple’s iPhone made perhaps the biggest splash of 2007, at least among consumers. But even educators were exploring the device’s potential for schools soon after its June 29 release. As one of several campuses working with Apple’s University Education Forum to investigate how the iPhone might be used in postsecondary education, the University of California-Davis has launched an iPhone research program that invited faculty to consider how the iPhone might enhance teaching.
Amid the buzz surrounding the release of Amazon’s Kindle in November, some analysts were saying the device could do for reading what Apple’s iPod has done for listening to music. If that’s true, it could be good news for educators, given that studies have shown a steady decline in reading among today’s youth. Skeptical educators, however, questioned whether the device can help spark new interest in reading among a generation of students weaned on video games and other electronic devices.
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