aims to simplify the college search process has launched a free service to help students make informed choices when selecting a college by letting them know which colleges are likely to want them before they actually apply. Students create an online profile that details their interests, extracurricular activities, grades, and test scores. Next, they receive invitations from colleges who think that, based on their profile, the students would be a great fit. The site has optional features that enable collaboration among students, parents, and guidance counselors. The service is free to students, parents, guidance counselors, and—in many cases—free to colleges. “Colleges spend a great deal of time, money, and energy looking for students, and students spend a great deal of time, money, and energy filling out applications and looking for the right college. The platform provides a venue for colleges and students to meet and interact in a more efficient and effective way,” said Mike Moyer, president and chief operating officer.


Blogging helps encourage teen writing

For most media outlets that reported on an important new survey measuring the impact of technology on teens’ writing skills, the big news from the survey was that emoticons and text-messaging abbreviations are creeping into students’ formal writing assignments. :-(

Buried beneath the alarm of writing "purists," however, was a promising finding with equally important implications for schools: Blogging is helping many teens become more prolific writers.

The survey, conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project with support from the College Board and its National Commission on Writing, explores the links between the formal writing that teens do for school and the informal, electronic communication they exchange through eMail and text messaging.

Teens who communicate frequently with their friends, and those who own more technology tools such as computers or cell phones, do not write more often for school or for themselves than less communicative and less gadget-rich teens, according to the study, released April 24. Teen bloggers, however, write more frequently both online and offline, the study says.

Forty-seven percent of teen bloggers write outside of school for personal reasons several times a week or more, compared with 33 percent of teens without blogs. Sixty-five percent of teen bloggers believe that writing is essential to later success in life; 53 percent of non-bloggers say the same thing.

Bradley A. Hammer, who teaches in Duke University’s writing program, says the kind of writing students do on blogs and other digital formats actually can be better than the writing style they learn in school, because it is better suited to true intellectual pursuit than is SAT-style writing.

"In real ways, blogging and other forms of virtual debate actually foster the very types of intellectual exchange, analysis, and argumentative writing that universities value," he wrote in an op-ed piece last August.

Teens write for a variety of reasons, the report notes: as part of a school assignment, to stay in touch with friends, to share their artistic creations with others, or simply to record their thoughts. Teens say they’re more motivated to write when they can choose topics that are relevant to their lives and interests, and they report greater enjoyment of school writing when they have the chance to write creatively. Teens also report that writing for an audience motivates them to write well and more frequently–and blogs are one way of providing this type of audience.

Despite efforts to keep school writing assignments formal, however, nearly two-thirds of teens (64 percent) admit that emoticons, abbreviations, and other informal styles have crept into their writing.

"It’s a teachable moment," said Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at Pew. "If you find that in a child’s or student’s writing, that’s an opportunity to address the differences between formal and informal writing. They learn to make the distinction…just as they learn not to use slang terms in formal writing."

Half of the teens surveyed say they sometimes fail to use proper capitalization and punctuation in assignments, while 38 percent have carried over the shortcuts typical in instant messaging or eMail messages, such as "LOL" for "laughing out loud." A quarter of teens say they’ve used :) and other emoticons in their school assignments.

Defying conventional wisdom, the study also found that the digital generation is shunning computer use for most writing assignments. About two-thirds of teens say they typically do their school writing by hand. And for personal writing outside school, longhand is even more popular–the preferred form for nearly three-quarters of teens.

That could be because the majority of student writing is short: School assignments typically average a paragraph to a page in length, Lenhart said.

Still, teens appreciate the ability to edit and revise their writing on a computer, the report says. Nearly six in 10 students (57 percent) say they edit and revise more frequently when they write using a computer.

Teens who use a computer in their non-school writing believe computers have a greater impact on the amount of writing they produce than on the overall quality of their writing. Yet, there is a great deal of ambiguity with respect to the impact of computers in each of these areas.

Among teens who use computers in their non-school writing, four in 10 say computers help them do more writing, and a similar number believe they would write the same amount whether they used computers or not. In comparison, only three in 10 teens who write on computers for non-school purposes at least occasionally believe computers help them do better writing–and twice as many (63 percent) say computers make no difference in the quality of their writing.

Parents are more likely than teens to believe that internet-based writing (such as eMail and instant messaging) affects writing skills overall, though both groups are split on whether electronic communications help or hurt. Nonetheless, 73 percent of teens and 40 percent of parents believe internet writing makes no difference either way.

Most students (82 percent) believe that additional instruction and focus on writing in school would help improve their writing even further–and more than three-quarters of those surveyed (78 percent) think it would help their writing if their teachers used computer-based writing tools such as games, multimedia, or writing software programs or web sites during class.

The telephone-based survey of 700 U.S. residents ages 12 to 17 and their parents was conducted last year from Sept. 19 to Nov. 16 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.


"Writing, Technology, and Teens" survey


Movement aims for online texts for community-college students

A new effort announced April 28 aims to spur the development of free, online course content geared toward community colleges as an alternative to traditional textbooks that often are too pricey, Inside Higher Ed reports. "Community college students don’t have a lot of discretionary income, and we’re always looking at ways to cut their expenses," said Judy Baker, dean of the distance-learning program at the Foothill-De Anza Community College District. This week, dozens of professors from colleges across the country are meeting with representatives from nonprofit groups and for-profit companies that are in the digital textbook market to talk about ways of developing and promoting online content. The first phase of the "Community College Open Textbook Project" is being funded by a one-year, $500,000-plus grant to the Foothill-De Anza Community College District from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. As part of the project, community college professors will receive training on how to find and customize material online. One objective is for participants to create online textbooks, largely culled from existing resources, in high-demand courses such as statistics…

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Florida bill would let schools teach evolution options

Florida’s House and Senate have passed bills that would allow–or require–teachers to present alternate theories of how life evolved, National Public Radio reports. Proponents say the issue is academic freedom. But critics say the bills would introduce religion into public schools. The Florida House legislation must now return to the Senate, which has already passed a different version of the bill. Two other states are also looking at the issue, framed as a matter of "academic freedom." That terminology is promoted by the Discovery Institute, a group that backs the teaching of "intelligent design" in classrooms.
The movement is also the subject of the new Ben Stein film, Expelled (see "Move: Science ‘expels’ intelligent design") and it could signal a new opening in the perennial battle over evolution in public schools…

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How nonprofits are using social networking to raise money

Nonprofit organizations are testing ways to raise money and awareness through online social networks, betting that the internet’s viral nature will open fresh avenues for fundraising and marketing, the Chicago Tribune reports. It’s a big change for nonprofits as they shift from direct-mail campaigns and relying on the checkbooks of older givers to the unpredictable whims of web popularity. Though the transition is nascent, charities see potential in recruiting young activists who already use online networks to broadcast their identities and make connections. "We’re not claiming [online networks are] the panacea for philanthropies," said Ben Binswanger, chief operating officer for the Case Foundation. "[But] we think it’s way too early to dismiss it as an internet fad. … We’re going to keep pushing down this path, because we see enough spark here to make it interesting."

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Lawsuit challenges school system’s web use

A South Carolina man is suing his local school system for refusing to post links to pro-voucher internet sites in a case that raises questions about what school districts can promote or exclude from their web sites.  

Randy Page, head of an activist group called South Carolinians for Responsible Government, filed a lawsuit last month after Columbia, South Carolina’s Lexington County School District 1 did not post links to sites advocating school choice side-by-side with web links that school officials publicly support.

The lawsuit is appealing a federal court ruling passed down last July that found Lexington 1 officials were allowed to exclude links to web sites they did not agree with. The Lexington 1 district has links to sites that oppose school-choice options in South Carolina and across the country. Attorneys for Page and the school district argued their cases before a three-judge panel March 20.

Kevin Hall, Page’s attorney, said this week that because Lexington 1 officials included links to sites they support, they should be required to present the opposing views on their taxpayer-funded web site. Page wanted the school district to post links to online articles advocating tax credits to help parents home-school their children or send them to private school. 

"What he’s asking for is equal access," Hall said. "The question is whether the government can discriminate against citizens based on their viewpoint on public policy issues. …Can you pick and choose who you allow access to your [communications] systems, based on whether you like or dislike the viewpoints they articulate?"

David Duff, an attorney representing the Lexington 1 school system, said courts have made it clear that governments are not required to provide outlets for people and groups opposed to the government’s policy stances.

The Supreme Court has ruled that public officials and government agencies have the right to push for policy stances they agree with, without providing opposing viewpoints, he said.

"When the government is communicating its own message, it does not create a forum for debate by those who have an opposing point of view," Duff said.

If the school district were forced to post Page’s web links to pro-voucher sites, Duff said, it could open the door for everyone to demand their views be represented on government-run web sites.

"Where would you draw the line? Every citizen would have a right on any issue to have a link to their blog," he said. "You couldn’t even keep up with it all."

In 2005, the Lexington 1 school board opposed state legislation known as Put Parents in Charge, which would have provided public funding for private-school vouchers.

Fighting for equal access to publicly funded web sites is important as more people go to the internet for their news and information, Hall said. Refusing some points of view, he said, would be equivalent to denying access to public spaces for political demonstrations.

"Today’s electronic media is yesterday’s sidewalk or public street or public park," he said. "The district can choose to educate kids rather than run [its] political propaganda machine."

Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, said he had not heard of any similar controversies involving school system web sites. School officials should be allowed to keep their web sites free from articles directly opposing the school district’s policy stances, he said.

"It seems to me the superintendent and school board members’ first responsibility is to support and defend the positions of the school system in which they serve," Knezek said. "If they felt that there was damaging potential, I would hope they would have the discretion to determine what’s in the best interest of the school district."

If the court sides with Page, school system web sites could be cluttered with various positions on a number of issues, Knezek said–confusing parents, students, and school activists.

"I think we are looking at a really serious problem, because people who come to that web site will believe that’s the position of the school district," he said. "What you’re saying is the school district has lost any sort of option to control the positions they’re taking or the decisions they’re advocating."

Despite the school district’s refusal to post Page’s web links, South Carolina is among those states at the forefront of the school-choice movement. Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, led a charge that allowed school vouchers for South Carolina pre-kindergarten students.

Sanford also helped create a charter school district–allowing parents to transfer their children from assigned neighborhood schools to charter schools–and is pushing to provide vouchers for every student in the state. Sanford has argued in recent years that South Carolina’s largest school districts, which include Columbia, receive much more funding than schools in rural parts of the state. This inequality has left some school districts without the technology, qualified teachers, and resources enjoyed by schools in urban areas of the state, he says. 

Along with many other organizations, teacher unions, including the National Education Association–a union of 3.2 million members–have long opposed school vouchers. Vouchers, opponents say, compete for government funding with public schools, diverting resources and money away from public-school problems such as teacher shortages, overcrowded classrooms, and technology gaps between urban and rural schools.

The court is expected to reach a decision on the Lexington 1 case this summer.


Lexington School District

South Carolinians for Responsible Government


Judge dismisses Connecticut’s NCLB lawsuit

A federal judge has dismissed the last of four claims in Connecticut’s challenge to the federal No Child Left Behind law, the Associated Press reports. Connecticut in 2005 became the first state to sue over the law’s testing requirements, saying it is unconstitutional because expenses outweigh federal reimbursements. The 2002 law requires annual standardized tests for students in grades three through eight. States must correct problems in school districts that fall short. Connecticut wants to continue its program of testing students every other year, in grades four, six, and eight. In a ruling released April 28, Judge Mark Kravitz dismissed the state’s claim that alleges the U.S. Department of Education unfairly denied Connecticut’s proposed changes to testing rules for special education and limited English proficiency students. The state contended it would have to use state money to meet the law’s requirements, a violation of its unfunded mandates provision. Kravitz said the state failed to make its argument…

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Sports simulations can give students a real workout

The Edmonton Journal reports that a Canadian educator has undertaken an experiment to answer an intriguing question: Can video game-based exercise be as good as the real thing? Greg Chin, a science and physical education teacher at Archbishop Joseph MacNeil, decided to find out. He took his Grade 8 students to the gym recently, where they compared heart rates from regular exercise against simulated activities on the Nintendo Wii video-game system. Chin says early results from the test are unexpected. Students ages 13 to 15 should be getting their heart rates up to around 180 beats per minute, he says. After playing some of the games, his students had heart rates ranging from 140 to 170 beats. "I was surprised at some of the heart-rate readings," he says. He won’t have final test results from his experiment for another week, but he suspects there are benefits, albeit limited, to introducing video-game exercise into the school curriculum. "It would at least allow you to maintain your current fitness level, which, for some of the kids, is better than doing absolutely nothing," he says, noting that motivating students to be active is a challenge in today’s classrooms…

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Software gives writing skills a boost

After just two years using new writing software in her classes at Pleasant Grove Junior High School, Jenny Reuel noticed a remarkable improvement in her students’ writing skills, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. One student narrative stood out in particular. Asked to pen an imaginative narrative about waking up to find herself transformed into a bird, one of Reuel’s students described in vivid detail how plumage took root on her arms and her nose became a beak. Then she related where she flew and what she saw. "It was pretty remarkable," Reuel said. In fact, the "MyAccess" writing software gracing computer screens in Reuel’s class, and in the classrooms of approximately half of Utah school districts, is so popular among teachers and students that the Utah State Office of Education hopes lawmakers will find money enough for it to take flight in the state’s remaining districts…

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Social-networking apps can pose security risks

Using those cool little applications designed to enhance social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook can make personal information as public as posting it on a billboard.Trouble is, most students (and educators) never have a clue.

Consider Sarah Brown. She’s unusually cautious when it comes to social networking. The college sophomore doesn’t have a MySpace page and, while she’s on Facebook, she does everything she can to keep her page as private as she can.

"I don’t want to have to worry about all the different online scandals and problems," says Brown, an education major at St. Joseph College in Connecticut. She’d like to control her personal information and keep it out of the hands of identity thieves or snooping future employers, noting: "It’s just common sense."

It sounds like her information is locked down and airtight. But is it?

Turns out, even the privacy-conscious Sarah Browns of the world freely hand over personal information to perfect strangers. They do so every time they download and install what’s known as an "application," one of thousands of mini-programs on a growing number of social-networking web sites that are designed by third-party developers for anything from games and sports teams to trivia quizzes and virtual gifts.

Brown, for instance, has installed applications on her Facebook page for Boston Bruins fans and another that allows her to post "bumper stickers" on her own page and those of her friends. It’s a core way to communicate on social-networking sites, which allow friends to create pages about themselves and post photos and details about their lives and interests.

People often think Facebook profiles and sometimes MySpace pages, if they’re set as private, are only available to friends or specific groups, such as a university, workplace, or even a city.

But that’s not true if they use applications. On Facebook, for instance, applications can be downloaded only if a user checks a box allowing the application’s developers to "know who I am and access my information," which means everything on a profile, except contact information.

Given little thought, agreeing to these terms has become a matter of routine for the nearly 70 million Facebook users worldwide who use applications to spruce up their pages and to flirt, play, and bond with friends online.

News Corp.’s MySpace, which has about 117 million unique visitors each month, recently added an applications platform, giving developers access to the profiles of anyone who downloads them. Unlike Facebook, though, MySpace users don’t have to include their names on their profiles.

So what do these third parties do with the information? Sometimes, they use it to connect users with similar interests. Sometimes, they use it to target ads, based on demographics such as gender and age (something Facebook and MySpace also do).

Facebook and MySpace say they hold application developers to strict standards–and boot them if they don’t comply. They also point out that some information, such as eMail addresses and phone numbers, aren’t made available.

But experts who track online security issues think there’s too much personal information flying around out there, with few guarantees that it’s safe. They also think social networkers have little understanding where their information goes and how it’s used–and as a result, have a false sense of security.

"I suspect that there’s a whole lot of clicking without a lot of thinking," says Mary Madden, a senior research specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, who studies privacy issues. "So much of this sharing happens in a way that users don’t see the consequences. It’s kind of a big, black hole."

Part of the risk stems from Facebook applications being created by anyone, some of them tech-related companies and others merely individuals with know-how. And they could be anywhere in the world, as is Jayant Agarwalla, co-founder of Facebook’s popular Scrabulous application, a takeoff on the game Scrabble.

Reached by eMail, he says Scrabulous does use demographic information to target ads that show up as a person plays the game. But Agarwalla, who’s based in India, stresses that such information is provided in "real time" and not stored. "In my humble opinion, users have nothing to worry about," he says.

Some would argue that it’s much like trusting an online vendor with your credit card information.

Still, it’s an honor system, says Adrienne Felt, a computer-science major at the University of Virginia. A Facebook user herself, she decided to research the site’s applications and even created her own so she could see how it worked.

Most of the developers Felt polled said they didn’t need or use the information available to them and, if they did, they accessed it only for advertising purposes.

But, in the end, Felt says there’s really nothing stopping them from matching profile information with public records. The information also could be sold or stolen. And all of that could lead to serious matters, such as identity theft.

"People seem to have this idea that, when you put something on the internet, there should be some privacy model out there–that there’s somebody out there [who’s] enforcing good manners. But that’s not true," Felt says.

Last year, Facebook users revolted when the company started using a tool called Beacon, which tracked its users’ purchases and actions at dozens of web sites and then broadcast the data on the pages of their friends.

Beacon has since been scaled back. By comparison, the issue of personal information going to application developers–both on Facebook and now MySpace–has remained relatively quiet.

Jonathan Gaugler, a 26-year-old New Yorker, is one who finds targeted ads on his Facebook page a bit too invasive.

"Getting married? Do your registry here!" read one recent ad that showed up. Another on his fiancee’s page was advertising for egg donors for fertility clinics.

"Creepy," Gaugler says.

He keeps his Facebook activity to a minimum as a result–and rarely downloads an application because he doesn’t want to be further targeted.

But many others are much less cautious, seeing the risk of social networking "as low and the reward as high," says Patricia Sanchez Abril, an assistant professor at the University of Miami’s business school who studies privacy law.

"It is the chosen mode of communication of everyone they know. So if you’re not in it, you’re just not in the loop," she says. "There’s a lot of peer pressure."

What users of these sites don’t realize, she adds, is that there is little legal backup if their information is used in a way they didn’t intend.

"This is an area that’s completely unregulated. Yes, there are contracts. But if the receiving end doesn’t abide by the contract, you’re still out of luck," Abril says.

And applications, she notes, are only one worry when it comes to online threats.

A social networker’s friends can, for instance, give access to personal information or photos in a profile. That happened to the alleged call girl involved in the recent sex scandal with former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

Researchers at Indiana University also published a study last year showing how they "scraped" information from students’ social network profiles. Posing as people’s friends, they then used the information to fool the students into providing their university ID and password on a bogus external web site. (See "Students targeted in ‘phishing’ research.")

Whether the profile is private or not, users should limit the information they post, said Tom Jagatic, one of the researchers and now a senior information technology consultant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It’s good advice, says Jeremy Miller, a fraud investigator based in Nashville, Tenn., but he wonders how many will heed it. He uses MySpace and sees people who routinely list everything from their income to phone numbers on their profiles–and don’t even bother to make their profiles private.

"It’s kind of a status symbol, so privacy takes a back seat," says Miller, who works for Kroll Inc., a risk-management consulting firm. "It’s much like people saying you shouldn’t carry your Social Security card around in your wallet. But a lot of people still do it."





Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Safeguarding School Data resource center. It seems like you can’t go a whole week lately without hearing about some major data security breach that has made national headlines. For businesses, these data leaks are bad enough—but for schools, they can be especially costly, as network security breaches can put schools in violation of several federal laws intended to protect students’ privacy. Go to: Safeguarding School Data