Survey finds teens ignorant on basic history, literature

Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic history and literature questions in a phone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one in four said Columbus sailed to the New World some time after 1750, not in 1492, the New York Times reports. The survey results, released on Feb. 27, demonstrate that a significant proportion of teenagers live in "stunning ignorance" of history and literature, said the group that commissioned it, Common Core. The organization describes itself as a new research and advocacy organization that will press for more teaching of the liberal arts in public schools. The group says No Child Left Behind has impoverished public school curriculums by holding schools accountable for student scores on annual tests in reading and mathematics, but in no other subjects…

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Latest trend in school security: Convergence

Faced with increased security concerns, especially in light of recent school shootings across the U.S., educators are looking for new ways to improve their campus security systems–and converging physical security tools on their campus computer network is the latest trend they are turning to.

At the Campus Safety Conference in California on Feb. 20, officials from Cisco Systems discussed the importance of converging a school’s physical security tools on its network, which they said schools are now doing at an unprecedented pace.

Although campus security is a top priority for school leaders, many schools’ physical and network security infrastructures are disjointed, comprising a patchwork of separate alarm systems, surveillance cameras, communication systems, and radios that cannot interact with the digital, network-connected systems more recently put in place.

Brigham Young University (BYU) sought to model its campus security systems on those often found in the corporate world by merging its physical security tools on its computer network. All of BYU’s major campus buildings now use physical access cards connected to the network, and the university recently upgraded its analog surveillance cameras to an IP-based surveillance system, so images from the cameras are visible through a network connection. In addition, using Cisco’s IP Interoperability Collaboration System (IPICS), BYU merged its campus radio system and its IP-based network.

“Before we modernized our campus safety communications, training used to be a nightmare for our emergency dispatchers, because they literally had to know more than 70 different user interfaces to transmit information,” said Steve Goodman, BYU’s communications center supervisor. “Now that we’re using the network as our communication platform, the dispatch process is streamlined and efficient.”

The university already has mass-notification techniques in place, including eMail notification, and is working to install other methods, such as self-subscribing text messages and a system that allows an administrator to take control of all campus telephones and use the speaker function on those phones.

On-campus surveys revealed that the number of students who have cell phones with text capabilities reaches into the mid-90 percent range.

“Most students don’t even have land lines anymore,” Goodman said. “We understand that those students roll … over fairly quickly, with students transferring, graduating, and we’ll have to entice the students and the community to keep their contact numbers up to date.”

As school violence garners national headlines, Goodman said events such as the Virginia Tech shooting last year brought the need for vigilant security methods to the forefront of university officials’ minds.

“It’s more visible now, and it did help pave the way,” Goodman said. “Our university administration has always been very supportive, and now some of these things are more public, and there’s a better understanding of it now.”

At Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., Director for Networks and Systems John Turner realized the university needed a major reevaluation of its campus emergency notification tools. Turner invested in Cisco Unified Communications, and the first move was to roll out Berbee Informacast, which enables users to broadcast messages to overhead speakers and to displays on IP phones across campus.

“We wanted to ensure we used all the tools we had available to us in the most effective way possible; our IP-based communication system allowed us the flexibility to expand our communications reach,” Turner said.

Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Ill., also made IP communications central to its campus safety and communication strategy. College officials deployed SchoolMessenger for Cisco Unified Communications, which supports on-site day-to-day operations and is integrated with an IP communications platform. The school uses SchoolMessenger’s Application Service Provider (ASP) solution for additional off-site capacity.

Most recently, school officials used the system to cancel classes after weather problems.

“It took us just 16 minutes to alert 18,000 students that the school would be closed due to bad weather,” said Jack Leifel, the college’s chief information officer. “Our system then automated a report of who answered the phone, who received voice messages, and which calls did not go through.”

Spates of school violence, including last April’s Virginia Tech shootings and February’s shootings at Northern Illinois University, also highlighted the need for emergency communications.

“We’d already been looking at what potential vehicles we’d have to communicate to staff and students prior to Virginia Tech,” said Leifel. He and his team, including Bill Helmold, IT director of client services, examined SchoolMessenger’s mass-notification system and presented it to campus officials before its installation.

“After the Virginia Tech shootings, our president got back to us and said action was needed,” Leifel said.

“We did a network upgrade in 2001 or so, installed IP telephony in 2003, and from that point we’ve been looking at ways to leverage other products and integrate,” he said. “We have the basis in place, and once that VoIP system is in, you’ve got the basis to move forward.”


Scientists give birth to Encyclopedia of Life

Scientists have unveiled the first 30,000 pages of a vast online encyclopedia that aims to catalogue every one of the Earth’s 1.8 million species, BBC News reports. The immense online resource is designed to enhance our understanding of the world’s diminishing biodiversity. The creators of the database say it could have an impact on human knowledge comparable to that which followed the microscope’s invention in the 1600s. The web site is designed to be used by everyone from scientists to students to ordinary citizens…

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AASA Conference Roundup

ADT Security Services promoted its many school security solutions, which include a school security diagram, a school security checklist, “10 Steps for Proactively Planning Your School’s Security,” ADT Video Surveillance Solutions, a Visitor Identification Management System, and ADT Mobile Video Solutions. The company says it can customize solutions for everyone from the smallest campus to the largest school district.

AdvancePath, a Virginia-based company that engages in public-private partnerships with school districts to create cost-effective and results-driven Learning Academies serving high-risk and out-of-school youth, touted its best practice with Glendale High School in Glendale, Calif. Each of AdvancePath’s academies enrolls at-risk students who attend one of three four-hour shifts per day (morning, afternoon, and evening). All facilities are fitted with the necessary technology, furniture, and meeting space for students to work independently on their studies or in small groups with their teachers and classmates. Glendale has an AdvancePath Academy that includes 120 students. In just one year, 11 students have graduated from the program. Students at Glendale’s AdvancePath Academy spend much of their time using specialized software programs aligned with California state standards to learn content for the classes they need to graduate.

The Army National Guard is offering a free public service called the YOU CAN School Program, which consists of 30 classroom-delivered presentations that use video, music, and graphics to introduce students to necessary life skills. The 30 presentations are grouped thematically using a color-coded system that combines similar topic ideas, such as Health and Social Well-Being, Life Betterment, Discovery, and Disaster Preparedness. Disaster Preparedness covers tornados, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes, while Discovery deals with history, national security, and patriotism. Life Betterment covers problem solving, goal setting, and leadership, while Health covers school violence prevention, drugs and alcohol, and nutrition awareness.

BrainWare Safari, a cognitive skills development program presented in a video-game format, offered a recommendation from Eugene White, superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools. White calls BrainWare’s results on the district’s Boys Academy for students with poor discipline records “simply amazing” and says these students had increased confidence, greater motivation, and became better problem solvers after using BrainWare Safari. “Teachers say they demonstrated teamwork and support for each other … and test scores on the Woodcock Johnson Test illustrated tremendous improvement,” he says.

Casio demonstrated its full range of calculators and math software applications, including the fx-9860G Slim graphing calculator, which is ideal for students from eighth grade to college, the company says. This calculator features a slim design with a flip-top; a large, high-contrast display with backlighting; an onboard help manual, and USB connectivity to a computer and projector, all for $91. Among its software, Casio offers the ClassPad Manager for the ClassPad300 v. 3.0-an advanced graphing calculator that includes a collection of applications for self-study, a computer algebra system (CAS) spreadsheet, a statistics wizard, and a financial application. It also comes with screen-capture capabilities.

The Center for Disease Control’s Division of Adolescent and School Health discussed its Healthy Youth web site, which has an array of tools, resources, and data to help guide school health programs. Tools include a school health index, a physical education curriculum analysis tool, a food safety action guide, school nutrition success stories, and program evaluation tutorials. Resources include fact sheets on obesity, tobacco use, and HIV, as well as science-based guidance for addressing asthma, childhood obesity, injury and violence, nutrition, sexual risk behaviors, and physical activity. Data cover school health profiles, a school health policies and programs study, and a youth risk behavior surveillance system.

Emerald Data Solutions demonstrated its BoardDocs system for online board meetings. BoardDocs technology allowed John Sedlock-a school board member for the Liberty School District in Liberty, Mo., and a soldier deployed to serve in Afghanistan-to receive his board packet while overseas, the company says. All documents were available to Sedlock through the BoardDocs online portal, eMail, and teleconferencing. Board meetings in Liberty took place at 4:30 a.m., Afghanistan time-and Sedlock reportedly attended every meeting except one.

eSped, a developer of web-based Individual Education Plan (IEP) applications and services for parents, administrators, and educators, introduced its eStar Archive, designed especially for the storage, archiving, faxing, scanning, and fast retrieval of the information contained in special-education students’ complete files. eSped’s partnerships with state and federal governments ensure that the new tool meshes with government mandates, the company says. eStar Archive can capture paper documents and store them in electronic format; store correspondence from parents, signature pages, and virtually any third-party documents such as medical evaluations and other reports; archive digital voice recordings of meetings and access them as if they were documents; provide parents with immediate access to their child’s entire special-ed file; and more.

First Student Planning Solutions (FSPS), a consulting group, discussed its expertise in student transportation and routing, with more than 150 years of collective experience. FSPS has developed proficiencies in several student transportation software platforms, including Edulog, VersaTrans, TransFinder, Trapeze Software, and ESRI’s ArcGIS. In the past 15 years, the company has directly assisted more than 200 clients in the use or deployment of routing and boundary planning systems, or provided consultations about routing efficiency.

Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies introduced Schlage, a portfolio of services that offers a security solution for every point in a school building. Schlage gives teachers, administrators, and staff the tools to improve access control throughout the building and protect the school from unwanted visitors. From mechanical key systems to fully integrated electronic access management, Schlage provides a full spectrum of reliable, cost-effective products, the company says. There are four levels to Schlage security: campus integration; networked access control, accountability, and credential management; stand-alone electronic access control and key management; and functional and compliant mechanical access control. Solutions include safe school locks, campus locks, wireless locks, biometric readers, L Series Mortise Locks, ND Series Lever locks, and a value integration platform.

The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) announced its newest SRO Active Shooter Response Course, which is being taught in conjunction with instructors from the Tactical Defense Institute. This is an intense, 40-hour course that focuses specifically on one- and two-officer response to an active shooter or random violent incident on a school campus. NASRO still offers a Basic SRO Course, which is a 40-hour block of instruction designed for any law enforcement officer or school administrator working in an educational environment. The course emphasizes three main areas of instruction: functioning as a police officer in the school setting, working as a resource officer and problem solver, and developing teaching skills.

The Outside Classroom, in partnership with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), introduced AlcoholEdu, a web-based course for high schools to help combat underage drinking. AlcoholEdu incorporates proven alcohol prevention techniques with essential science-based alcohol education, the organizations say. Students can access the course from any internet-connected computer with a unique login ID, and administrators can track their progress through the course, including their final exam grades, via an online Administrative Site. The course also features surveys, interactive exercises, a final exam, a concluding segment, custom pathways, and personalized feedback. Both organizations hope the interactive course will change student attitudes toward drinking and support safer, healthier decisions.

Saf-T-Net discussed AlertNow, designed to address schools’ communication needs. The product supplements conventional school communications and replaces outdated phone trees and automated dialing tools that require staff resources and large blocks of time to deliver messages to multiple recipients. AlertNow displays the school phone number on caller ID for non-emergency calls and distinguishes urgent emergency calls with a “411” caller ID display. The system reportedly can handle 120,000 calls every 10 minutes and 7,200 text messages every minute. It also can communicate with non-English speaking communities in their native language, Saf-T-Net says.

Business-intelligence firm SAS announced that the Plano Independent School District in Texas is using its software to measure student progress and predict performance on end-of-year state accountability tests. Using the SAS Enterprise Intelligence Platform, Plano’s teachers have quick access to student data to predict outcomes and intervene to help students reach their potential, the company says. The data can be presented visually, which helps when teachers need to commu­nicate with parents. Plano also can use the data to better assess the qual­ity of its teaching. The district reportedly has been so pleased with the initial SAS implementation that it is expanding its use into human resources and finance.

Schoolwires Synergy discussed its digital file-sharing service-a secure, centralized web site that provides access to content such as documents, files, and presentations. Administrators, teachers, and students can use the service to store, organize, and share files at anytime and from anywhere, the company says. The service can enhance communication among stakeholders and establish a bridge for the school-home connection by allowing files to be managed in a central repository with private, public, and shared folders, allowing users to remain organized, find files easily, and eliminate folder clutter.

Videx said that school systems are starting to use its CyberLock security system to help with key-control problems. The CyberLock system incorporates the mechanical lock hardware that is already present in school buildings. Cylinders inside the existing locks just need to be replaced with CyberLock electronic cylinders, and this is done without the costs of hardwiring and structural changes, Videx said. The system includes the CyberLock cylinder, which cannot be picked, and an electronic key that cannot be duplicated. Facility managers can track and audit access to sensitive areas, because both the lock and key store a record of openings and denied entries. The electronic key can be programmed to open all or selected doors on pre-specified days, and only during certain times on those days. Keys also can be set with a date to begin operation and a date to expire. The Stonington Public School System in Pawcatuck, Conn., vouches for CyberLock.


‘Innovation’ the buzzword at AASA conference

Several key speakers at the American Association of School Administrators’ (AASA) annual conference in Tampa, Feb. 14 to 17, seemed to agree that the old ways of rote memorization, standardized testing, and chalkboards are not what students need to succeed in today’s schools and the world at large.

However, while the word “innovation” formed easily on everyone’s lips, different interpretations of what it means to be innovative—and how innovation can improve students’ chances of success and the nation’s standing in the new global economy—allowed for different points of view and offered attendees an interesting mélange of school-reform ideas to savor.

“Let this be an introduction to a talk, not the definitive solution,” said speaker Daniel Pink, who is the former chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and the author of A Whole New Mind—a guide to surviving, thriving, and finding meaning in an outsourced, automated, upside-down world.

Pink’s argument is that, as the economy changes to support novelty, nuance, and customization, the old-school methods of routines, right answers, and standardization are not aligning with the country’s best interest.

“I’m not saying that a school’s job is to produce employees for employers, but this is a misalignment of interests that needs to change,” he said in a Feb. 15 keynote to school administrators.

Pink relates the economy to the human brain: He believes the old days of the left side of the brain—linear, logical, reason-based ways of thinking—are gone, and have been replaced with a need for right-brain approaches: synthesizing, creative, context-based ways of thinking.

“I’m not saying that the left isn’t important—of course it is—but three forces have influenced the economy to become right-brain,” he said.

These three forces are an abundance of material prosperity in the middle class, off-shoring of labor to Asia, and automation.

“It’s progressed from an agricultural age to a conceptual age,” said Pink. “We’re in an age when the cost of the status quo is higher than the cost of change.”

To help schools better align with the new economic shift, Pink suggested eight approaches:

  1. Shake up legislators.

  2. Experiment with new metrics, such as Tuft University’s Robert Sternburg’s Rainbow Project.

  3. Tear down the walls that departmentalize academic disciplines, same-age classrooms, and administration. “The most valuable prefix in the economy right now is ‘multi,’” said Pink.

  4. Infuse arts education throughout the curriculum: Dell’s CEO said his company is in the “fashion business,” while General Motors says it’s in the “arts and entertainment business,” and Proctor and Gamble says it’s in the “design business.”

  5. Get real about science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) education: Make sure science education includes more than just memorization of terms.

  6. (for emphasis) Shake up the legislators.

  7. Promote and defend autonomy: Students need autonomy to explore their own interests, instead of a rigid curriculum, Pink said.

  8. Make well-meaning mistakes: Take risks, try something new.

With these eight suggestions, Pink says, we can help make students something more than right-answer vending machines—something the economy already has plenty of in the form of software applications and the internet.

“Like Richard Moniuszko, deputy division superintendent of the Fairfax County Public Schools, told me once, ‘We need to prepare our kids for their future, not our past,’” he concluded.

‘Testing restrains the definition of knowledge’

Also looking toward the future was Yong Zhao, a distinguished professor of technology in education and educational psychology, and director of the Michigan State University College of Education’s Center for Teaching and Technology.

Zhao gave attendees his theory on what knowledge is most valuable in today’s economy, a question Herbert Spencer asked in 1859. Ironically enough, nearly 150 years ago, science was his answer—just as science is what many educators believe is the answer today, Zhao said.

According to Zhao, however, pushing for high math and science scores will not help the United States remain a global economic leader; it will only “discriminate against other talents. … Testing restrains the definition of knowledge,” he said in a Feb. 15 presentation.

Zhao cited Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and the creators of Google as people who are modern-day success stories—all of whom dropped out of college. “A country’s worth is not measured by test scores,” he explained. “It’s measured by concepts, ideas … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!”

Zhao noted that countries such as India, Korea, Japan, and Singapore are producing incredible scientists, engineers, and mathematicians—so the United States needs to find its own niche market. Said Zhao, “We need to ask ourselves, why would some company want to be based in the U.S.? Why would they need our workers?”

He described how technology is redefining talent, and he said the talents that we as a nation should create must revolve around new technologies.

“Look at Second Life, look at the virtual worlds of social networking sites and gaming. Look how Asian countries are hiring teenagers to play video games professionally. … The U.S. needs to prepare students for the production of virtual goods,” he explained.

Zhao also declared that to thrive in this new interconnected world requires having global tolerance and strong ethical online standards.

“We need to teach our students global citizenship, teach them that global warming is interdependent on all countries, that learning foreign languages can really benefit them in the future,” he said. “Right now, the U.S. need for foreign-language speakers outweighs the need for engineers.”

Zhao concluded by saying that “we need to become innovators in a digital world,” a goal that can be achieved only through curiosity, risk, and creativity—characteristics he says the United States is known for.(For more from Yong Zhao, see this installment of eSN-TV’s TechWatch)

Connected schools

In another general session on Feb. 15, AASA announced its National Superintendent of the Year. And, in keeping with the recurring conference theme of “innovation,” this year’s winner—Miami-Dade County’s Rudy Crew—also is a celebrated proponent of reinventing American education to maintain the nation’s competitive edge in a knowledge-based economy.

Crew, who is in his fourth year as superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, has been credited with making significant changes in the learning environment of the 353,000-student school system, the nation’s fourth largest. Before joining Miami-Dade County, Crew headed the New York City, Sacramento, and Tacoma, Wash., school systems.

Crew also published a book last year, called Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools, in which he outlined his own recipe for effective urban school reform.

In spite of the billions we spend on education, Crew says, six years after the inception of No Child Left Behind, one-third of our eighth-graders still can’t do basic math, and only 60 percent of our 10-year-olds can read. Furthermore, he says, NCLB’s focus on testing has diverted attention from other important aspects of education—such as building character, citizenship, and workplace literacy.

In his book, Crew proposes a new strategy: School systems need to be run like businesses, he argues, with explicit goals, implementation plans, and budgets. Schools also must become the nucleus of their community, he says—the center of a web connecting businesses, the arts, health services, and other social institutions.

“Connected schools,” as Crew calls them, tap into outside resources and give students a better sense of what is going on in the world around them. And there is evidence that Crew’s approach is paying off: For the past two years, the Broad Foundation has recognized Miami-Dade County as one of the nation’s five most improved urban school districts.

“Rudy Crew has demonstrated high-quality leadership in several of our nation’s largest public school systems,” said Paul Houston, AASA’s executive director. “From developing innovative school improvement programs to strengthening collaboration with the local community, he has worked hard to improve learning outcomes for all children. AASA is proud to have him represent the best of the profession in 2008.”

More money, better data

One of the conference’s final keynote speakers, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, didn’t address the need for innovation, but she did provide her own thoughts on what is needed to reform American education in general—and NCLB in particular.

The school field is second only to the defense industry in its use of arcane lingo and obscure abbreviations, according to Napolitano. Educators must resolve, she said, to avoid jargon and communicate clearly with stakeholders. Effective communication will become increasingly important as economic conditions worsen.

Noting that as of Feb. 17, budgets in 30 states already were in deficit, Napolitano urged educators to be “parsimonious regarding non-classroom expenditures.”

She called on Washington to reform NCLB and find a way to provide usable data as well as adequate funding. As it stands, she said, data from NCLB are unusable. Also, the program identifies failing schools but offers no money to fix them, she complained. Yet, the governor opposed eliminating NCLB, advising Washington to “amend it; don’t end it.”

Napolitano recommended that AASA attendees adopt an overarching education strategy consisting of eight key components:

1. Embrace research-based principles, such as working with the school board, holding all parties accountable, and relying on accurate data;

2. Integrate all levels of education into a unified whole by forming “P-20 working groups” to encourage a consistent, inclusive approach from pre-kindergarten to graduate school;

3. Improve standards for all children;

4. Implement real-time assessment;

5. Attract and retain high-quality teachers;

6. Increase the time students spend in school by lengthening both the school day and school year;

7. Keep students learning well beyond high school, because just “2 percent of all jobs in this country now require only a high school education”; and

8. Make NCLB work for states.

News from the technology providers

In and around the conference exhibit hall, education vendors touted numerous solutions for securing school buildings, streamlining administrative tasks, and enhancing instruction.

Among the products and services on display were a school health web site from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), a system for holding school board meetings online, a web-based course to combat underage drinking, and a digital file-sharing service for improving school-to-home communication.

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Low-cost laptop projects offer new tools

The beneficiaries of a movement to equip students in developing countries with low-cost laptops now have a new resource to help them put the technology to sound educational use both in the U.S. and around the world, thanks to deals struck among ePals Inc., distributors of the low-cost laptops, and the National Geographic Society.

The agreements mean ePals’ suite of safe, kid-friendly electronic communication tools–including the company’s SchoolMail, SchoolBlog, and Global Learning Community applications–will be available to students using Intel’s Classmate PC and the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) foundation’s $188 XO laptop.

ePals, which started as a web-based electronic penpal service in 1996, now offers classroom eMail, blogs, online literacy tools, and web-based collaborative projects on subjects such as global climate change and habitats–all free of charge.

With 125,000 classrooms and approximately 13 million students around the world using its free applications for communicating and collaborating online, the company says, ePals is now poised to expand its reach into classrooms even further.

Students and teachers worldwide who use Intel’s Classmate PC or OLPC’s XO computer will be able to join ePals’ Global Learning Community–reportedly the largest network of interconnected classrooms in the world–by selecting the ePals icon on their machine’s desktop. By doing so, they will enter a safe online environment for building and exchanging knowledge, ePals says.

“We are working together to foster students’ 21st-century skills by using the internet in a safe and protected context to develop global awareness, master critical thinking, and experience project-based collaboration,” said Ed Fish, president and CEO of ePals.

Lila Ibrahim, general manager of Intel’s Emerging Markets Platform Group, echoes Fish’s enthusiasm for the partnership, saying ePals’ applications “complement the collaboration features on the Intel-powered Classmate PC–enabling students and teachers to collaborate and learn together in a secure environment to develop skills for the global economy.”

According to the New York Times, ePals already has seen its applications improve education in developing countries, such as at a school in Kragujevac, Serbia.

One teacher there, Mirjana Milovic, says ePals has helped the 120 students in her school with their English-language skills. Their correspondents in Alabama and Kansas have “also learned that jeans and Nike shoes are popular in Kragujevac, but that the McDonald’s in town closed for lack of business,” Milovic says.

Students in San Diego, meanwhile, use ePals’ applications to conduct “virtual field trips” and have online exchanges with their peers in Italy, China, and the Czech Republic. Students have learned about the family life and political systems in these countries, while at the same time improving their writing skills.

The announcement that Intel and OLPC have partnered with ePals coincides with an agreement between ePals and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development Council to give African students and educators the opportunity to connect with classrooms worldwide through ePals’ Global Learning Community. In addition, National Geographic has decided to partner with ePals to provide digital learning content.

Initially, National Geographic content will be included within ePals’ Global Learning Community on topics such as maps and geography, habitats, global warming, natural disasters, people and culture, great leaders, water, and weather.

“ePals is leading the digital transformation of the education landscape into a more dynamic, cross-cultural, and collaborative experience,” said Edward Prince, chief operating officer for National Geographic Ventures, which creates and distributes digital content for the National Geographic Society.

He added that ePals offers “a rich learning experience for users, while also offering a powerful platform for content providers to deliver their resources in a meaningful way.”


ePals Inc.

Intel’s Classmate PC

One Laptop Per Child

National Geographic


New publication offers energy efficiency guidance for K-12 schools

Sixteen percent of schools districts’ controllable costs are spent on energy, according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). To help contain these costs, the group has released a new publication written specifically for K-12 schools, intended to help design teams construct energy-smart schools using off-the-shelf technology that can cut energy use 30 percent or more annually, its authors say. The Advanced Energy Design Guide for K-12 School Buildings instructs architects, engineers, and others on how to use best design practices to create energy-saving buildings. Written in partnership with the American Institute of Architects, the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, the U.S. Green Building Council, and the U.S. Department of Energy, the book is available free of charge in electronic format from ASHRAE’s web site; hard copies are available for purchase. “Many schools throughout the country have increased energy efficiency, cut costs, and reduced their environmental footprints through energy-efficiency measures,” says Paul Torcellini, chair of the committee that wrote the book. “Many others, however, still spend more money on energy than they do on educational supplies. Just think of all the things a school could do each year with the money it saves on energy: buy more books and computers, increase teachers’ salaries, upgrade the media center and gymnasium … the list goes on and on.”


Teachers strike back at students’ online pranks

Tech-savvy teenagers are increasingly paying a heavy price–including criminal arrest–for parodying their teachers on the internet, the Christian Science Monitor reports. Tired of fat jokes and false accusations of teacher-lounge partying or worse, teachers and principals are fighting back against digital ridicule and slander by their students–often with civil lawsuits and long-term suspensions or permanent expulsions. "Kids have been pulling pranks on teachers and principals since there have been schools in the U.S., but now there’s an edge to it–the tone and tenor of some of these attacks cross the line," says Nora Carr, a spokeswoman for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina (and an award-winning columnist for eSchool News)…

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Japan boosts internet speeds with ultra-broadband satellite

After a week of delays, Japan launched a new, experimental internet satellite on Feb. 23 that shows why that country is still so much farther ahead than the United States in terms of bandwidth, Wired reports. The "Kizuna" satellite is designed to give extremely high internet speeds to rural and other areas that have been left off the country’s already high-speed grid. According to the project’s web site, ordinary home users will ultimately be able to get internet download speeds of 155 megabits per second (Mbps), with upload speeds of 6 Mbps. Businesses and other organizations using a larger receiver dish will be able to get connections of 1.2 gigabits per second. Japanese officials say the technology will enable anyone to receive sophisticated medical treatment regardless of time and location by transmitting clear images of their conditions to a doctor in an urban area–and in academic fields, schools and researchers in remote areas will be able to exchange information easily…

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Blackboard’s patent win shocks D2L

You could call it, simply, "Round One" for Blackboard Inc.

At least, that’s the term that people in the Kitchener, Ontario, offices of Desire2Learn Inc. (D2L) were using after a federal district-court jury in Texas hit their small Canadian company with a $3.1 million judgment for infringing the patent rights of Blackboard, a much larger American company that dominates the commercial market for course-management software.

D2L President and CEO John Baker told reporters he was shocked by the jury’s decision.

In a related matter, District Court Judge Ron Clark, who presided at the trial, ruled against a D2L claim that Blackboard’s patent could not be enforced because the company had withheld information from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), which approved Blackboard’s patent application in January 2006.

"I think we’re all disappointed," Diane Lank, a D2L lawyer, said on Monday, "but this is Round One. I don’t think that anyone looking at this thought the case would end at the jury level."

The implication from D2L is that the fight is not over by a long shot. But from Blackboard’s perspective, the verdict vindicates its argument that the methodology of its software–allowing individual users to access multiple courses through a single log-in procedure–constitutes a unique invention whose patent its smaller competitor improperly violated.

Matthew H. Small, Blackboard’s chief counsel, said Monday that his company had proved its case before "a very sophisticated jury" whose members included well-educated people with experience in academic computing.

Lank said, however, that D2L was "quite likely" to appeal the verdict, which the jury reached on Feb.22 after several hours of deliberation at the end of a two-week trial.

In addition, D2L has vowed to press ahead with claims that the patent itself was invalid to begin with and should not have been approved by the USPTO because of the existence of previous products known as "prior art." The agency agreed last year to reconsider the matter, but based on the usual pace of such reviews, a final decision could be nearly a year away.

More immediately, the federal court in Texas has scheduled a follow-up hearing for March 10 to determine whether Blackboard will be granted an injunction against future sales of D2L products in the United States. Blackboard has repeatedly said it would not challenge products that were already in use–a stance that Small reiterated yesterday in an interview.

[Update: Blackboard has, indeed, been granted an injunction against future sales of D2L’s product in the United States. After Blackboard won its injunction, D2L CEO Baker said his company continues to insist that Blackboard’s patent is invalid but has been redesigning its product “so that it falls well outside the boundaries of the asserted claims of the patent.” He added: “We expect to release the redesigned product in the next few weeks, and well before the end of the 60-day grace period that the court has granted.”]

With all those elements at work, a cloud of uncertainty that users and developers of course-management systems have felt they were under ever since the patent dispute began about 18 months ago seems unlikely to be dispelled for quite a while. Many officials in higher education and the open-source community have strongly supported D2L, fearing that a final judgment against it–let alone the lawsuit itself–could end up curbing competition in the development of eLearning software.

Blackboard, which is based in Washington, D.C., has sought to reassure critics that it would not use its patents against the "development, use, or distribution of open-source software or home-grown course management systems anywhere in the world, to the extent that such systems are not bundled with proprietary software."

The company called that statement, which it issued about a year ago as its suit against D2L was gathering momentum, a "legally binding" pledge.

For its part, D2L also made an attempt after last week’s verdict to assure users of its products that they faced "no immediate threat," as Baker put it in an online notice to clients.

"We will work with you to ensure there are no future issues," Baker wrote. "We are financially sound and are confident of our ability to work through this matter."

Baker went on to say that, despite the trial’s outcome, "we were able to present a strong case," and he said that D2L would "continue to challenge the patent’s validity and Blackboard’s charges of infringement."

One measure of the consternation that the case has generated among educators and software developers can be found at e-Literate, a personal blog by Michael Feldstein, a former academic administrator who now works at Oracle Inc., as a principal product manager for academic enterprise solutions.

"I’m still trying to understand what all of this means," Feldstein writes of the protracted conflict between Blackboard and D2L. "I don’t think anybody involved with this has changed their position or reduced their level of concern while this fight has dragged out, so the questions are really about what the legal ramifications are and what the various community members (including but not limited to D2L and [Blackboard]) will do next."

Feldstein adds that, as he sees it, "so far nobody has benefited financially from this," and he concludes: "Tell me again how software patent assertion is going [to] reward and enhance innovation in higher education?"



Desire2Learn’s Patent Information Blog

Michael Feldstein’s e-Literate Blog