Students help adults in new computer lab

When it comes to computers and technology, there is no denying that children probably have the upper hand on their parents–and teachers and staff at North Carolina’s Candler Elementary School are taking advantage of that, the Asheville Citizen-Times reports. With a $23,300 grant from the Biltmore Lake Charitable Fund, they created the Candler Learning Lab, which they are using to not only teach students, but to teach their parents. The school is offering adult computer literacy classes where the students are becoming the teachers. "I kind of get to be the boss," said Jessica Morrow, a fifth-grader in the school’s technology club. "I kind of like being here, because it gives me the power to teach things to adults." Along with the help of the school’s media coordinator, Connie McElrath, 15 students in the school’s technology club are helping lead the classes…

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Op-ed columnist: Hope in the unseen

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes of a scene he witnessed last weekend "that is at once so uplifting and so cruel it’s difficult to even convey in words." The event was a lottery to choose the first 80 students who will attend a new public boarding school, the SEED School of Maryland, based in Baltimore. The foundation opened its first school 10 years ago in Washington, D.C., as the nation’s first college-preparatory, public, urban boarding school, and Baltimore is its second campus. The vast majority of students are African-American, drawn from the most disadvantaged school districts. In Washington, nearly all SEED graduates have gone on to four-year colleges. Because its schools are financed by both private and public funds, SEED can offer this once-in-a-lifetime, prep-school education for free–but it has to be open to anyone who applies. The problem is that too many people apply, so it has to choose them by public lottery–and SEED Maryland got more than 300 applications for 80 places. "There’s something wrong when so much of an American child’s future is riding on the bounce of a ping-pong ball," Friedman writes…

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Internet2 expands schools’ possibilities

Thanks to a partnership with nearby research universities, students at Georgia’s Barrow County Schools have used a high-definition video link to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta to control cameras and view images of sea life remotely from their classrooms; learned calculus from Georgia Tech instructors using a "virtual whiteboard" application; and interacted with researchers on the ocean floor near Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary just off Sapelo Island, Ga., among other activities.

Barrow County is one of several K-12 school districts that have teamed up with member universities belonging to the ultra high-speed Internet2 network, giving them access to this advanced higher-education research network and the many opportunities for learning that it affords.

Barrow County’s participation in the network "has increased our bandwidth by 500 percent," said Superintendent Ron Saunders, "and that has allowed us to … deliver a world-class education to our students."

With an average speed of 100 gigabits per second, Internet2 supports even the most bandwidth-heavy research projects and group collaborations, such as high-definition video conferencing, telemedicine, and tele-immersion, or shared virtual reality.

Participation in the Internet2 network was expanded to include K-12 schools a decade ago. As of last year, nearly 4,300 K-12 school districts were connected to the network, and this number has been climbing slowly but steadily each year, said Greg Wood, director of communications for the Internet2 initiative.

At the Consortium for School Networking’s annual conference in March, Internet2 participants discussed some of the projects they are involved with.

"Imagine the difference between dial-up and broadband in terms of speed," said Larry Gallery, membership manager for the New York State Education and Research Network (NYSERNet). "Now, imagine that dial-up is the internet and broadband is Internet2. … That’s how much of a difference there is."

Gallery described a project from the National Library of Medicine, called the Visible Human Project, that has created complete, anatomically detailed, three-dimensional representations of the normal male and female human bodies. As an outgrowth of this project, the University of Michigan has created two- and three-dimensional navigational browsers through which students can take a virtual tour of the human body over an Internet2 connection.

"Students can see what eating a cheeseburger does to your circulation," explained Gallery. "It’s like nothing else they’ve seen before."

Heather Weisse, applications coordinator for MAGPI (Mid-Atlantic GigaPoP in Philadelphia for Internet2) at the University of Pennsylvania, said video conferencing is another useful application of Internet2.

For example, Project Lemonade is an international collaboration that has provided a real-world context for practicing a second language. According to Weisse, it has helped promote cultural sympathy, understanding, and exchange, while preparing students for a global society.

Another Internet2 application is virtual surgery, where a real surgeon wears a mini-camera on his or her head and students can follow the procedures of open-heart surgery, knee surgery, and so on.

"This access to experts can help make complex concepts accessible, can let students move beyond theory, and can provide a voice of authority on the subject," said Weisse. "Traveling virtually allows for no-cost field trips, a total immersion experience, and great curricular supplements. It also provides differentiated instruction."

To take part in the Internet2 network, K-12 schools first must form partnerships with any of the 206 member universities. Saunders said his district’s partnerships with Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, and other schools have not only brought greater bandwidth–they’ve also enhanced teacher development.

"With Georgia Tech, and with the many other universities that we’ve partnered with, they’re all very willing to give their time to help us develop and integrate our Internet2 curriculum," he explained. "Universities have also helped us provide teacher professional development, and it’s really blurring the lines between K-12 and higher education."

Barrow County began its Internet2 participation with only two schools, connecting them through PeachNet, the state’s education network, with the help of ADVA Optical Networking. Now, as of this fall, all locations within the district will have high-speed connections to the network.

Of course, to take advantage of Internet2’s bandwidth-intensive applications, districts will need a robust network infrastructure to bring these applications into classrooms. Barrow County has leased Ethernet connections from the Internet2 hub site in Winder, Ga., to each of its schools, and these eventually will provide Gigabit Ethernet service to all of the school sites.

To help promote the many Internet2 projects in its curriculum, Barrow County hosted "Splash Day" at Westside Middle School in Winder back in January, during which teachers gave classroom presentations on their projects.

"We’ve found that kids are glued to the Internet2 presentations, and participation is at a high. We’re trying to get them interested in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics], and this seems like a great way to do it," said Saunders.

Barrow County officials called the event "Splash Day" because they believe one event can ripple throughout the community.

Amy Rary, a sixth-grade reading and language arts teacher at Westside Middle School, said Internet2 "is a tool that keeps me growing, learning, and evolving as a teacher. … To see and hear from people around the country or world is a priceless opportunity. I believe it really opens up the doors to … what the future can hold for students."


Barrow Country Schools


Muse (connects Internet2 users with other projects and members around the globe)

Database of Internet2 programs and activities (search for "Internet2" under keyword search)

ADVA Optical Networking

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Minimizing Classroom Distruptions resource center. Computers and the internet have become welcome instructional tools in most schools, ushering a wealth of additional resources into today’s classrooms. Unfortunately, they also bring with them the potential for unwanted distractions–such as online content that ranges from off-target, to inappropriate, material. Go to: Minimizing Classroom Disruptions


Federal lawmaker targets cyber bullying

Prompted by outrage over a Missouri teen’s suicide after an internet hoax, United States Rep. Kenny Hulshof on May 22 introduced a bill that would impose federal criminal penalties for cyber bullying.

Hulshof, a Missouri Republican who is running for governor of that state, said the measure might prevent more tragedies like that of 13-year-old Megan Meier.

Megan killed herself two years ago after receiving cruel messages on a social networking web site from a fictional boy she met online.

Lori Drew, the mother of another girl in Megan’s suburban St. Louis neighborhood, has been charged for her alleged role in the hoax under criminal statutes dealing with wire fraud. (See "Woman indicted in MySpace suicide case.") But no federal law deals specifically with internet bullying.

"The Megan Meier Act would give prosecutors the tools to protect kids from the most egregious of online predatory attacks," Hulshof said in a statement.

The effort in Congress comes a week after Missouri lawmakers approved a bill making cyber harassment illegal. The state measure revises Missouri law to cover harassment via computers, text messages, and other electronic devices.

Hulshof’s bill would allow federal prosecutors to go after online messages meant "to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause emotional distress" to others. Those convicted under the measure would face a fine or up to two years in jail.

"This bill establishes a fair legal standard," Hulshof said. "It sets needed limits for online conduct while protecting free speech."

But Bruce Sanford, a First Amendment lawyer in Washington, D.C., questioned whether the federal proposal would pass constitutional muster.

"I don’t even think that’s plausibly constitutional," Sanford said. "Congress has a completely undistinguished track record of passing impulsively unconstitutional laws when it comes to new technologies."

He cited the example of federal laws trying to regulate decency on the internet, which have consistently been struck down when tested in the courts.

"It would be nice to think that Congress would act more intelligently when they try to regulate in an area of such constitutional sensitivity," Sanford said. "But their track record is they just don’t. They pass bills that are politically popular but hopelessly unconstitutional."

Hulshof co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.


Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo.

Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.


Online schools draw interest in South Carolina

Using the internet as a teaching tool is nothing new, but South Carolina public school students will have the option to be taught completely online starting this fall, the Sun News of Myrtle Beach, S.C., reports. The legislature approved applications for three online charter schools this year, two K-12 programs and one high school. So far, all three have had surges in applications. "We are seeing a lot of interest. Online education is not that old of a concept in the United States, but it’s exploding right now," said Jamie Osborne, an area organizer for InSight Schools, a national company that starts statewide online high schools and is affiliated with Phoenix University, an online college. InSight has received more than 1,700 applications for about 500 slots in its South Carolina school, Osborne said. The other two schools, Connections Academy and K12’s South Carolina Virtual Charter School, have enrollment limits of about 1,500 students in their pilot year, but both have also received more student applications than they can accept…

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Google co-founder pushes TV ‘white space’ plan

Google co-founder Larry Page was in Washington, D.C., on May 22 to promote the company’s proposal for a new generation of wireless devices to operate on soon-to-be-vacant television airwaves, Reuters reports. Page was scheduled to meet with lawmakers in Congress and officials at the Federal Communications Commission, hoping to convince them to allow the "white space" between television channels to be accessed by low-power wireless devices. "I think it will make a huge difference to everybody," Page said during a morning appearance at a Washington think tank. Page highlighted the benefits of making more spectrum available while downplaying opposition from broadcasters, and makers and users of wireless microphones, who fear the wireless devices would cause interference. "I think the debate’s really been politicized," Page said. He said making more spectrum available would benefit computer users, giving them internet connections with greater range and speed…

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OLPC spinoff in talks with four laptop makers

The broad influence of the One Laptop Per Child initiative continues to expand its sphere, CNET reports: Walter Bender, who just left the OLPC initiative to start up an open-source software spinoff, is reportedly in "informal discussions" to get its Linux-based operating system on low-cost laptops made by four manufacturers. The nonprofit spinoff, Sugar Laboratories, is having discussions with Pixel Qi and is interesting in pursuing a relationship with Intel, Bender told BetaNews. No other companies were named, though he mentioned Asus on Sugar Labs’ web site last week…

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Microsoft pledge could cut tech costs for schools

Conversion to open software programs for creating spreadsheets, documents, and other standard office files could become more commonplace in school districts, if a May 22 pledge by software giant Microsoft Corp. comes to fruition. 

In a development that could make it easier for schools to use cheaper, open technologies instead of proprietary programs, Microsoft said it will make its Office 2007 software compatible with the OpenDocument Format (ODF). 

Microsoft’s announcement comes after months of international pressure to make Office 2007 compatible with ODF, an open file format developed in 2005 by Microsoft competitors such as IBM and Sun Microsystems. Until now, Microsoft had embraced a different open file format that it had developed, called Office Open XML (or OOXML). But some critics said Microsoft’s open standard still resulted in compatibility problems for files created using open software programs such as OpenOffice, which derived from Sun’s StarOffice.

The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) last week issued a blistering rebuke of Microsoft’s initial refusal to make Office 2007 compatible with ODF.

Urging British schools to avoid licensing Office 2007 until Microsoft builds support for ODF into its software, Becta said Microsoft’s unwillingness to cooperate could lead to "higher prices and a range of other unsatisfactory effects which have a negative impact on wider policy initiatives, including improving educational outcomes, facilitating home-school links, and addressing the digital divide."

Even after Microsoft’s May 22 agreement to provide free updates to Office 2007 that will make the program fully compatible with open technologies, Becta officials said they would scrutinize the company’s next steps before issuing a new recommendation to British schools.

"Built-in and effective support for ODF in Office 2007 is still a key Becta requirement, and we would welcome any steps that improve the choices available to the education community," read a statement released by the organization. "Once the updated Office 2007 product is available, we will examine how the various issues identified in our final report on Office 2007 and the concerns we referred to the regulators are addressed by Microsoft’s revised approach. If necessary, we will update our advice to schools and colleges."

American school officials said Microsoft’s latest announcement could help schools in their efforts to convert to open technologies.

"If [Microsoft] really does what it says, it will be helpful to my district, as we are beginning to move toward using OpenOffice in our school computer labs and classrooms as a cost-saving [measure]," said Marc Liebman, superintendent of California’s Berryessa Union School District, in an eMail message to eSchool News. "OpenOffice’s products are much improved and have all of the functionality of [Microsoft] Office that our students need."

For many school systems, operating budgets have shrunk over the past year, prompting school board members and superintendents to seek cost-cutting measures. Berryessa officials announced last month that the school system would make budget cuts to absorb a $3.7 million shortfall for next year. The cuts were made after California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled a 2009 state budget that is 10 percent smaller overall than the state’s fiscal 2008 budget.

As Berryessa schools have moved toward using open office software, compatibility between files created in OpenOffice and Microsoft Office remained an impediment to system-wide computer network changes, Liebman said.

"This announcement [should] resolve that problem," he said.

Critics say Microsoft’s Office Open XML format effectively forces Microsoft customers into buying only Microsoft programs.

The European Commission launched an antitrust investigation into Microsoft Office in January.

"The Commission would welcome any step that Microsoft took toward genuine interoperability, more consumer choice, and less vendor lock-in," a European Union executive said in a statement, responding to Microsoft’s latest announcement.

"The Commission will investigate whether the announced support of OpenDocument Format in Office leads to better interoperability and allows consumers to process and exchange their documents with the software product of their choice," the EU statement said.

Thomas Vinje, a spokesman for the European Committee for Interoperable Systems—a group representing IBM, Nokia Corp., Sun Microsystems, RealNetworks Inc., and Oracle Corp.—said Microsoft was dragging its heels, as its pledge to support ODF applies to its Office 2007 Service Pack 2, which is to be released in 2009.

"Microsoft is still playing for time to further consolidate its super-dominant position, and … continued antitrust vigilance will be necessary," Vinje said in a statement. "Microsoft’s new promise to implement ODF 1.1 in the first half of 2009 is pretty underwhelming."

In May, a British watchdog agency complained that Microsoft’s OOXML file format for storing documents discouraged competition. It offered to help the EU find out if the software giant withheld information from rivals concerning the interoperability of file formats.

Last year, the EU high court upheld a record antitrust fine of $2.63 billion for the way Microsoft has marketed its Windows operating system in Europe.

Microsoft argues its Office Open XML format is superior to ODF, and the company has succeeded in making it an internationally accepted standard.



Berryessa Union School District


Schools’ cyber security needs improvement

School districts are improving their physical security, but they might be neglecting the security of their computer infrastructure, if the results of an annual survey are any indication.

The average physical safety rating of K-12 school districts improved by 39 percent over 2007, while the average cyber safety rating declined by 25 percent during the same time period, according to CDW-G’s "2008 School Safety Index," which is designed to mark the current state of K-12 school safety. 

"School districts both large and small are embracing advanced technology tools and techniques to make school a safer place for our children," said Bob Kirby, senior director of K-12 business for CDW-G. "Cyber and physical security tools–from network access control to security cameras–are allowing administrators to see into and lock down their networks and school buildings, but schools continue to be frustrated by budget and staff constraints, particularly in their IT security programs."

Asked to grade their school district’s physical and cyber security, about a third of survey respondents say these "need improvement." Districts also reported increases in physical and cyber security breaches in the last 12 months.

A nationwide survey of public school district IT and security directors, the School Safety Index gives a first-hand view of school safety issues and allows schools to measure themselves against a national benchmark with current questions and data. The index is based on eight indicators and four contra-indicators, or challenges. 

Evaluating schools’ cyber and physical safety, the 2008 index finds that districts nationwide are more successful in their approach to physical safety, and that IT safety might need a refresher course before schools see improvement. 

The study also reveals that districts are actively engaged in using new tools and techniques to try to improve cyber safety. Districts are struggling with budget constraints and with how best to use limited staff resources to improve security, the researchers found. And the implementation of mass-notification systems, coupled with increased use of security cameras, is giving physical safety an edge over cyber security this year.

Here are some other key findings:

• More than half of K-12 school districts are using network access control (NAC) technology to protect data and ensure that only authorized users and approved applications can access their networks. However, budget constraints, lack of staff resources, and the need for more IT tools cancelled out districts’ efforts to improve cyber safety.
• Nearly half of all districts are using mass-notification systems, and 70 percent are using security cameras; 29 percent of districts report that security cameras have had a positive impact on district safety.
• Districts should consider the instant access that IP security cameras can give their local police. Although more schools are using security cameras, only a small number of districts give their local police force the ability to access digital footage in real-time during an emergency.

Measured on a scale from zero to 100, the average district score for cyber safety this year was 38.6, the researchers reported, down from 51.3 in 2007. This year’s index finds that NAC technology is emerging as an essential IT tool for K-12 school districts, with 57 percent using this to view and control who and what is on the network. Rural districts lead in NAC adoption at 60 percent, the study found, followed by suburban districts at 54 percent, and urban districts at 45 percent.

Although 89 percent of districts authenticate users to their networks, there is room for improvement, because 16 percent (mainly urban and rural districts) still use general logins rather than unique names or passwords–exposing themselves to a potential security breach.

Despite increased use of cyber security tools and dedicated attention to IT security, reported cyber security breaches are up in every segment except urban school districts. Overall, 14 percent of districts reported at least one IT security breach in the last 12 months, up from 9 percent in 2007. Districts with enrollments of 1,000 to 4,999 had the largest increase in breaches, from 8 percent in 2007 to 18 percent in 2008.

In terms of physical safety, the average district score was 44.7 on a scale of zero to 100–up from 27.5 in last year’s survey. Districts reported employing multiple tools to secure and monitor their buildings, with security cameras topping the list at 70 percent, an increase of seven percentage points from 2007. Other tools seeing increased use this year include sex-offender databases and security teams.

New this year to the School Safety Index is a tally of systems to inform large groups of people quickly in an emergency. A modern mass-notification or emergency-alert system enables a district to notify the community about emergencies such as the approach of severe weather, on-campus incidents, or other disruptions.

Of the 45 percent of respondents who said their districts use a mass-notification system, 70 percent alert the community through automated phone messages and 61 percent use eMail alerts–but only 32 percent take advantage of new technologies such as text messages. Most systems target faculty and staff, but they often do not reach all community members, such as police and other emergency responders. 

As with cyber safety, the index recorded a rise in reported physical security breaches, with 31 percent of districts experiencing a breach in the last 12 months, up from 21 percent in 2007.  Although urban districts continued to experience the most physical security breaches overall, rural districts saw the biggest increase, with 26 percent reporting at least one breach in the last year–up from 12 percent in 2007. 

Information technology is blurring the lines between cyber and physical security tools, yet the School Safety Index indicates that districts are not taking full advantage of this IT convergence.

Districts adopting tools that streamline processes and use limited staff resources more effectively–from IP-based security cameras to network access control–not only will improve their visibility into physical and network facilities but also will free IT and facilities staff for other critical activities, CDW-G says. Mass-notification systems ensure that critical information is both delivered and received by community members during an emergency via multiple communication channels, but many districts are not using all available channels or including all community members.

"The barriers noted by the 403 respondents to the School Safety Index–limited budgets, limited staff, and limited tools–are all linked," said Kirby. "The index gives schools the ability to see trends, understand the newest safety and security tools, and measure themselves against a national average in order to affect real change for their communities. With advance planning and creativity, districts can overcome the barriers to better security, enabling security staffs to work smarter, rather than harder."

The 2008 School Safety Index is based on a telephone survey of 403 public school district IT and security directors conducted by Quality Education Data in April 2008.  The survey has an error margin of plus or minus five percentage points and a 95-percent confidence level, researchers said.


2008 CDW-G School Safety Index