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Monkeys control robotic arm with their thoughts

Scientists have trained monkeys to manipulate a robotic arm solely with brain power, and they soon could help amputees and paralyzed stroke victims do the same, AFP reports. Immobilized monkeys with electrode filaments inserted into their cerebral cortext learned in only days to reach out with the free-standing prosthesis, pluck a tasty morsel with a pincer-like claw, and pop it in their mouths. When the path of the arm–positioned next to the shoulder–was deliberately blocked, the animals simply willed it around the obstacle with their minds, says a study published May 28 in the journal Nature. "The entire task is now performed with brain control," Andrew Schwartz, the lead researcher and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told AFP…

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Microsoft aims to school Google collegiate apps

With Google Apps Education Edition gaining market traction in thousands of universities across the country, Microsoft can ill afford to rest on its lofty on-premises software laurels, eWeek reports–so the software giant, looking to make inroads against Google Apps in the software-as-a-service market, on May 27 said it is providing its Microsoft Exchange Labs hosted eMail applications free of charge for college students and alumni. Microsoft Exchange Labs is now part of Live@edu, a Microsoft R&D communications and collaboration project based on Microsoft Exchange Server. An alternative to the education editions of Google Apps and Yahoo’s Zimbra eMail service, Microsoft Live@edu includes Windows Live Hotmail, Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft Office Live Workspace, and Windows Live SkyDrive online storage, which lets users share documents and photos. Students can use these tools to communicate with each other and teachers through eMail and instant messaging. Students also can use Live@edu to complete coursework solo or to collaborate on group projects using the Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint applications in Office Live Workspace. Since Live@edu launched in March 2005, 2,000 universities and colleges in 86 countries have enrolled in the program. Google claims millions of students and faculty at more than 6,000 universities are using its Google Apps for Education…

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Minnesota puts emphasis on science, math skills

Minnesota’s latest efforts to bring its students up to speed in science and math are putting a sharper focus on teaching, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. State Department of Education officials on May 28 announced the opening of nine regional centers where teams of teachers from throughout the state will be schooled in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) topics. Teachers then will take the knowledge and teaching strategies they pick up at these Math and Science Teacher Academy regional centers back to the classroom. The academy, proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and funded by the 2007 Legislature and a grant from the National Governors Association, will have branches in existing buildings in such locations as Plymouth, Fergus Falls, Staples, Rochester, Marshall, and St. Cloud. Training begins this summer…

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Irving ISD aims to fix glitches in computer program

The Irving, Texas, school district’s ambitious technology initiative has put laptop computers into the hands of 7,000 high school students, but officials say they have to fix some glitches that go beyond hardware, the Dallas Morning News reports. Teachers have not incorporated the laptops into classwork as much as hoped, the equipment is aging, and repairs take too long, Superintendent Jack Singley said at a school board meeting last week. Some trustees also said their constituents are beginning to question whether the district will deliver on its goal of one laptop per student. Currently, 1,100 students do not have the machines. Irving trustee Nancy Jones said voters mentioned concerns about the effectiveness of the program nearly every day during her recent campaign for school board. "I think the public is very aware that the kids need technology. They just want to make sure the laptops are being used for educational purposes," she said…

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New software tool keeps kids’ vaccinations on schedule

The Georgia Institute of Technology has developed a new software tool to keep better track of children’s vaccinations, MedHeadlines reports. Medical guidelines in the United States call for each child to receive about 27 doses of vaccine before turning two, and booster shots are often recommended until the child turns six. These vaccines protect children against 15 diseases that are preventable with a proper vaccination schedule. For many reasons, however, that vaccination schedule isn’t maintained adequately, and vaccines get missed or delayed. Until now, a very complicated set of calculations needed to be made before administering any missed or late vaccine doses. Many factors, including the child’s age, time since the last vaccine, and which other vaccines, if any, are to be administered at the same time, must all be taken into consideration before continuing the vaccination schedule. After routine data are entered, GIT’s new online tool quickly structures an immunization schedule based on the child’s age, previous vaccination history, and time elapsed since the last vaccine. In the case of missed or late vaccinations, the program can devise the optimum time to resume the vaccination schedule…

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Tornado destroys Iowa high school

A tornado that swept through northeast Iowa on May 25 left seven people dead and destroyed half a town, including a high school.

Aplington-Parkersburg High School, which served roughly 240 students, has been deemed a "total loss."  Dave Meyer, principal of the Parkersburg, Iowa high school, said the building was severely damaged in the storm, is not structurally sound, and may have to be rebuilt.

While many students dream of an early end to the school year, Aplington-Parkersburg students soberly surveyed the damage to their building as they gathered Tuesday in an effort to recover what few items were left untouched.

(Note: Click to see video and photos of the damage, both from the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier.)

The district’s middle school and one of its two elementary schools were not damaged.  Its second elementary school sustained some damage.

Neighboring school districts have offered to help Aplington-Parkersburg with summer courses, and district officials’ next step is to decide where to house next year’s high school students.

The National Weather Service (NWS) said Tuesday that this was the strongest storm to hit the state in 32 years.

With the year not even half done, 2008 is already the deadliest tornado year in the United States since 1998 and seems on track to break the U.S. record for the number of twisters in a year, said the NWS. Also, this year’s storms seem to be unusually powerful.

The weather service ranked Sunday’s twister, three-quarters of a mile wide with winds of up to 205 mph, an EF5–at the top of its scale.

"You just don’t see many of these around," said Steve Teachout, a forecaster with the NWS in Johnston. "There was nothing to hold that storm down. It just blew up."

The nation’s last EF5 tornado flattened Greensburg, Kan., and killed 11 people on May 4, 2007. Iowa’s last tornado of that size hit June 13, 1976, in the town of Jordan. No one was killed–a rarity for storms of that magnitude, Teachout said.

"When you’re talking about that strong a tornado, there’s not a lot of structures that will save people," Teachout said. "Really, the only thing left of a house is the foundation."

An estimated 350 homes in and near Parkersburg were destroyed Sunday, and another 100 suffered major damage, Gov. Chet Culver said. About 50 people were injured.

President Bush and Culver have declared Butler County a disaster area, freeing up federal and state aid for tornado victims.

Sunday’s death toll could have been much worse, said Butler County spokeswoman Holly Fokkena.

A siren was installed about 10 days ago in southeastern Parkersburg–the area worst hit by the tornado, Fokkena said. Sirens from elsewhere in Parkersburg weren’t always audible in that part of town, she said.


Summit showcases ed-tech ‘up-and-comers’

A free web site that uses song lyrics to motivate students to read and write, a platform for learning English that adapts to each user, and a "touch interface" for launching digital materials from printed textbooks were among the new and emerging educational technologies highlighted by the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) last week during its 2008 Ed Tech Industry Summit in San Francisco.

The annual summit holds special value for developers of educational technology, because some are chosen to take part in SIIA’s Innovation Incubator program. This program highlights nonprofit organizations or young companies that produce creative, engaging ed-tech products or services.

Developers must submit applications to the SIIA’s Innovation Working Group, which then selects the 10 most promising educational technologies to showcase.

Participants benefit from this added exposure, as well as the chance to network with more established ed-tech providers and industry executives. They’re paired with mentors, or "industry veterans … to help guide them in their initial stages of growth and development in the education market," said Karen Billings, vice president of SIIA’s education division.

This year’s participants in the Innovation Incubator program were:
BlueNose Edutainment, an educational web site that uses music, film, and sports as a way of motivating students in grades 6-12 to read and write. For example, students can listen to, read, and interpret song lyrics, and they can submit their own lyrics, song ideas, or song interpretations for prizes. All standards-based lesson plans on the BlueNose web site have been developed by McDougal Littell, a Houghton Mifflin company.

Education Clip Library, an online library of curriculum-focused video clips developed for licensing by educational publishers. The clips are aimed at learners ages 3-19 and cover all major curriculum areas. Each of the 5,000-plus clips has been sourced, selected, and contextualized by education experts and are available in digital format. Multi-lingual commentary will be available for these clips eventually, the company says.

EduTone Xchange, a web-based appliance from VIPTone that manages school data across multiple systems. Users can gain "single sign-on" access to all the applications they need with one secure username and password.

eSpindle Vocabulary and Spelling Tutor, an online tutoring program that focuses on committing words to long-term memory. This patent-pending program delivers individualized practice based on a database of 100,000 words and is designed to work with existing programs.

Go-Joe Reader Program, an interactive, web-based reading activity for grades K-6. Developed by high school math teachers in Brainerd, Minn., the program allows every student in a school district to contribute "food" (the number of minutes they read, which are converted into miles) to propel Go-Joe, an animated elephant, on a virtual journey around the world. Each student in the district contributes to the district’s overall reading goal by "reading to energize Go-Joe." Users can compare their personal, grade-level, or school data with all others in their district. When the program was used in the Brainerd School District, developers reported, more than 2,700 students from 109 elementary classrooms read more than 720,000 minutes in 30 days, enough for Go-Joe to circle the world nearly four times.

Haiku LMS, a learning management system that allows instructors to deliver a full range of curriculum and manage class work online. Educators can organize, manage, and deliver course content, assignments, and assessments; conduct discussions and exchange messages securely; collect homework; grade assignments; and take attendance. Haiku LMS’ design allows users to customize its interface without having to write lines of code.  Users can lay out lessons with images, audio, and video and can rearrange content and columns with drag-and-drop functionality. Features include quick-add assignments, a space for student announcements, a virtual dropbox, a blogging space, online assessments, and a resource library., an online destination that combines fun reading activities and literacy development with social interaction and networking. Children interact with one another and earn points to develop their avatars by participating in literacy activities such as games and interactive storybooks. 

Muzzy Lane’s Game Platform, a web-based gaming platform developed by software engineers and dedicated gamers. The game modules let students test and apply skills in a low-risk environment and challenge them by allowing them to compete with their peers.

Personalized Language Learning Platform, a platform for learning English that adapts to each user. "Smart" technology combines a mix of learning factors–such as the user’s native language, level of education, and age, as well as specific skills in areas such as grammar, reading, and listening–to create a personalized learning program for each student.

Somatic Digital Touchbook, which has developed a technology called Touch User Interface (TUI). This technology creates a "touch screen" out of the printed page by connecting paper directly to digital content that resides on optical media, the internet, or a hard drive. The service allows publishers to leverage their textbooks to drive more users to their interactive assets, improving the user’s experience.

In addition to these 10 participants, SIIA also recognized two other finalists for its 2008 Innovation Incubator program:

GenYES, an online technology curriculum for students in grades 4-12. GenYES participants learn about technology and other 21st-century skills in the context of authentic projects. Students work with teachers to design technology-infused lessons and provide tech support. The resulting collaboration gives students important technical and leadership skills and gives teachers on-site, sustainable professional development.

TutorVista, which provides one-on-one, personalized online tutoring for students from kindergarten through college using technology and a new global teaching force to level the playing field and make education affordable and accessible to students everywhere. Tutors have graduate degrees, undergo months of training, and pass a stringent certification process before they become certified TutorVista tutors; they are available anytime from any internet-connected computer. Subjects include math, English, biology, chemistry, physics, science, and statistics. Unlimited tutoring is priced at $99.99 per month in all subjects.

Participants in SIIA’s Innovation Incubator program said they valued the experience.

"The summit is giving us more exposure and helps us understand what the industry does," said Don Engen, the high school math teacher from Brainerd, Minn., who co-developed the Go-Joe Reader Program. "It helps us meet the people in the industry … with whom we can start to form business relationships."

The Ed Tech Industry Summit also featured the CODie awards–the only peer-recognition awards program of its kind in the industry, which provides an opportunity for companies to earn the praise of their competitors. Winners of the 2008 awards can be found at SIIA’s web site.


Software & Information Industry Association

Innovation Incubator program


Security, ERP are top campus IT challenges

Security, administrative or enterprise resource planning (ERP) information systems, and funding are the three most critical information technology (IT) challenges in higher education for the sixth year in a row, according to the 2008 Current Issues Survey from Educause, a higher-education IT organization.

"These three issues collectively continue to be the critical touchstones for IT in higher education. When any one of them falters, whether through major data-integrity breaches, system implementation glitches, or budget cuts, an institution’s or system’s strategic health is threatened," the report says.  Since 2003, these three issues have ranked in various order among the top three IT challenges for colleges and universities. 

There should be little surprise that security takes the top place among IT issues for colleges and universities, the report says, owing to the growing number of available services and critical data that need to be protected.

That–coupled with reported data breaches and other security incidents at colleges and universities, such as lost flash drives with sensitive student information and stolen laptops–makes security a front-and-center issue.

"In addition, the changing nature of the threats continues to challenge IT organizations," according to the report.

Critical security-related IT questions include: Is the institution aware of the federal, state, and local laws that govern the data for which it is responsible and that might dictate the appropriate and necessary responses to any breach? Does the institution have privacy and security policies that encompass all of its IT resources, and not just the central systems? Are the policies enforced consistently across the enterprise, reviewed regularly, measured for effectiveness, audited for compliance, and updated to reflect changing needs? Do the procedures reflect the goals of these policies?

Although ERP systems are not new, higher-education institutions spend the most resources on them, the report says, and despite the arrival of new technologies and concepts, this issue has risen in strategic importance from third place last year to second place in this year’s survey of campus IT officials.

"In addition to large initial implementation costs, IT leaders typically find that staff development, user training, business process modifications, regulatory compliance, and a very limited pool of talent are acute challenges and drains on resources. Annual maintenance, licensing, and consulting services are also getting more expensive," the report notes.

Key questions pertaining to ERP systems implementation include: What stakeholder dependencies and expectations must be factored into making sure the institution has the right system? How do the concepts of "empowering strong leadership" and "fostering appropriate governance" relate to ERP system oversight? Does the organization have a formal and effective staff-development program to meet the demands of ERP management?

Funding for IT has always grabbed the first or second position in the survey, with this year being the exception. The report cites a survey on IT spending from University Business in which 51 percent of responding campus officials described an increase in their IT budgets from the previous year. 

IT leaders are constantly facing growing expectations for new and existing IT services that exceed budget capacity, as well as maintenance costs that take up larger percentages of IT budgets.

"Increasingly, campuses are recognizing the need to involve the CIO in the institution’s highest level of planning and governance. IT leaders are devoting more time to campus communications, multi-year planning, and the presentation of IT opportunities in the context of the institution’s mission," the report says. "These changes are having a positive impact on funding IT through better-architected results, informed decision-making, and improved expectation management."

Although IT organizations have historically focused their funding efforts on operational priorities (such as rates, lines of business, and metrics), it is becoming increasingly important to balance this focus with strategic and organizational perspectives, according to the report.

Educause President Emeritus Brian Hawkins recently offered this comment: "Both operating and capital costs must be clearly understood, and more important, the functions that these expenditures support and how these lead to institutional goals need to be carefully and clearly communicated." IT leaders, he said, "need to have a dream…that the president and the provost and the financial officer and all the other sectors of the campus community share."

Rounding out the list of campus IT concerns are, in order from four through 10: infrastructure; identity and access management; disaster recovery and business continuity; governance, organization, and leadership; change management; eLearning and distributed teaching and learning; and staffing and HR management and training.

The PowerPoint slides of the 2008 survey data are available at Educause’s web site.


Educause Top 10 IT Issues of 2008

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