Free online games help reinforce math and language skills

Arcademic Skill Builders is a nonprofit web site that features online educational games offering a new approach to learning basic math, language arts, vocabulary, and thinking skills. Inspired by arcade games and the intense engagement they foster between the game and player, the site’s programs stem from experience, systematic observations, and research in understanding student learning in school and social situations. "These engaging educational games provide focused repetition practice that enables fluency to be achieved more quickly," according to the site. Students can choose to play "private" games, in which others cannot join the game unless they know the password, or "public" games, in which any player from outside can join the game, but there is no contact between outside players and the student. "We do not store the player IDs that the student creates," the site’s creators assure. "It is impossible for anyone outside your class to contact a student while playing the games." The site features game titles such as Word Invasion, Grand Prix Multiplication, and Verb Viper.


Demand for wireless internet paying off for schools

An ambitious plan to blanket the country with wireless internet access has an unlikely beneficiary, reports the Los Angeles Times: public and private schools. For nearly 20 years, five California State University campuses in the Los Angeles area have banded together to broadcast live courses over public airwaves that were long ago set aside by the federal government for distance learning. The spectrum isn’t as good as commercial TV, and until the late 1990s it required bulky rooftop receivers that needed a clear line of sight to broadcast towers on Mt. Wilson or Modjeska Peak. But technological advances have made the airwaves easier to use–and much more lucrative to hold. For Cal State Los Angeles, Long Beach, Dominguez Hills, Fullerton, and Pomona, as well as schools and religious institutions around the country, holding a license to the spectrum as the wireless industry expands has been like finding a winning lottery ticket in a dresser drawer. "Our bandwidth . . . is gold," said Warren Ashley, director of the Center for Mediated Instruction and Distance Learning at Cal State Dominguez Hills…

Click here for the full story


Can competitions raise ‘cool’ factor of math, science?

At a time when the United States is desperate to halt its slide in the world’s math and science rankings, a growing number of super-competitive math bowls and science fairs are putting the imprimatur of cool back into physics, trigonometry, and hydraulics, reports the Christian Science Monitor. Whether such science project showdowns can truly inspire America’s far-flung talent pools to learn what U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings calls "pocket protector skills," however, still remains to be seen. "I think we have a generation where math and science became uncool," says Jim Hamos, program director of the Math and Science Partnership Program at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va. "People are wondering what’s the galvanizing moment [for math and science education], and competitiveness may be that galvanizer. It’s one way to make science and math cool … as opposed to abstract and minimalist."

Click here for the full story


High court upholds part of anti-child porn law

The United States Supreme Court on May 19 upheld criminal penalties for promoting child pornography, brushing aside concerns that the law could apply to mainstream movies that depict adolescent sex, computer simulations of children engaged in graphical acts, or even innocent eMail messages that describe pictures of grandchildren.

The 7-2 ruling upheld part of a 2003 law that also prohibits possession of child porn. It replaced an earlier law against child pornography that the court struck down as unconstitutional.

The law sets a five-year mandatory prison term for promoting, or pandering, child porn. It does not require that someone actually possess child pornography. Opponents have said the law could apply to movies, such as Traffic or Titanic, that depict adolescent sex.

But Justice Antonin Scalia, in his opinion for the court, said the law does not cover movie sex–nor does it cover computer-generated depictions of children engaged in sexual acts. There is no "possibility that virtual child pornography or sex between youthful-looking adult actors might be covered by the term ‘simulated sexual intercourse,’" Scalia said.

Likewise, Scalia said, First Amendment protections do not apply to "offers to provide or requests to obtain child pornography."

Justice David Souter, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented. Souter said he was concerned that the promotion of images that are not real children engaging in sexual or suggestive acts still could be the basis for prosecution under the law.

"I believe that maintaining the First Amendment protection of expression we have previously held to cover fake child pornography requires a limit to the law’s criminalization of pandering proposals," Souter said.

The 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals had struck down the law’s "pandering" provision. The Atlanta-based court said it makes a crime out of merely talking about illegal images or possessing innocent materials that someone else might believe is pornography.

In the appeals court’s view, the law could apply to an eMail message sent by a grandparent and entitled "Good pics of kids in bed," for example, showing grandchildren dressed in pajamas.

In 2002, the court struck down key provisions of a similar 1996 child pornography law because they called into question legitimate educational, scientific, or artistic depictions of youthful sex.

Congress responded the next year with the PROTECT Act, which contains the provision under challenge in the current case. (See "Congress tries again to crack down on child pornography.")

Authorities arrested Michael Williams in an undercover operation aimed at fighting child exploitation on the internet. A Secret Service agent engaged Williams in an internet chat room, where they swapped non-pornographic photographs. Williams advertised himself as "Dad of toddler has ‘good’ pics of her and me for swap of your toddler pics, or live cam."

After the initial photo exchange, Williams allegedly posted seven images of actual minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct. Agents who executed a search warrant found 22 child porn images on Williams’ home computer.

Williams also was convicted of possession of child pornography. That conviction, and the resulting five-year prison term, was not challenged.

The case is U.S. v. Williams, 06-694.


United States Supreme Court


XO laptop’s interface goes independent

The former president of software and content for the One Laptop Per Child foundation has launched a new initiative in the wake of the project’s decision to ship with Windows XP, reports. Walter Bender said his new Sugar Labs Foundation is being established to further extend Sugar, the acclaimed open-source learning platform originally developed for One Laptop Per Child’s XO laptop. Sugar Labs will focus on providing a software "ecosystem" that enhances learning on the XO laptop, as well as other laptops distributed by other companies, such as the ASUS Eee PC. The platform has already been bundled with the most recent release of the Ubuntu and Fedora GNU/Linux distributions. "This is a very exciting time in the development of software for children’s education," said Bender. "In the first generation of the Sugar UI, the free and open-source community has demonstrated an exceptional ability to create a platform that enables children to explore the world, share their discoveries, and express themselves…"

Click here for the full story


Nintendo apologizes for Wii Fit calling little girl ‘fat’

An innocent Nintendo computer game about balance and fitness is probably the last product that would ever come to mind when you think about video game controversy, but Nintendo’s popular Wii Fit (which went on sale in Europe in late April and just launched in the United States on May 19) has prompted some experts to question Nintendo’s methods for measuring body weight and fitness, reports GameDaily. A report in the U.K. paper Daily Mail highlighted an incident in which a 10-year-old girl was told by the Wii Fit software that she’s "fat." The girl was very upset to be told that, and the parents were none too pleased. "She is a perfectly healthy, 4-foot 9-inch tall 10-year-old who swims, dances, and weighs only six stone," said the father. "She is solidly built but not fat. She was devastated to be called fat, and we had to work hard to convince her she isn’t. I know it is just a game, but we already have to worry about young girls starving themselves to look like magazine models and now we have a game that tells them they’re fat. This to me is very worrying."

Click here for the full story


Report: Girls’ gains have not cost boys

The American Association of University Women, whose 1992 report on how girls are shortchanged in the classroom caused a national debate over gender equity, has turned its attention to debunking the idea of a "boys’ crisis," the New York Times reports. "Girls’ gains have not come at boys’ expense," says a new report by the group, to be released May 20 in Washington, D.C. Echoing research released two years ago by the American Council on Education and other groups, the report says that while girls have for years graduated from high school and college at a higher rate than boys, the largest disparities in educational achievement are not between boys and girls, but between those of different races, ethnicities, and income levels. In examining a range of standardized test scores, the report finds some intriguing nuggets about the interplay of family income, race, ethnicity, and academic performance. For example, it finds that while boys generally outperform girls on both the math and verbal parts of the SAT, the male advantage on the verbal test is consistent only among low-income students, and that among black students, there was no consistent advantage by sex from 1994 to 2004…

Click here for the full story


Study probes RFID use in schools

Computer-science researchers at the University of Washington (UW) are tracking students and faculty in an experiment they hope will show the benefits and drawbacks of using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to bolster school safety and security initiatives.

RFID systems have begun cropping up in schools in the past few years—and  they’ve generated controversy over student privacy. The UW research is intended to give educators more information to help them make better decisions about when, how, and whether to use RFID technology in their schools.

Participants in the experiment carry RFID tags throughout the university’s six-story, 85,000-square-foot computer science building, constantly tracked by 150 antennas that record and store where and when people move from room to room. Gaetaneo Borriello, UW’s associate chair for research and a computer science professor who heads the RFID project, said 12 people have been tracked over the last six months, and he hopes to have between 100 and 150 subjects by next school year. Participants can have their information deleted any time they feel uncomfortable with what the RFID technology has recorded.

"We wanted to create an environment at scale to explore what the utility is … and how to approach those privacy issues," Borriello said, adding that the public has been slow to recognize RFID—already widely used to monitor the location of things such as cattle or commodities—as a useful tool for tracking valuable assets.

"The general public is worried about being tracked and what limits are on [the technology]," he said. "They don’t have a sense of the positive side of this stuff, what it can be good for. It’s kind of a knee-jerk reaction."

Most people are not aware of the ubiquity of RFID technology, Borriello said, which can be used in driver’s licenses, passports, and keys.

"This is a technology that is now going to reach widespread deployment, because it has gotten cheap enough and easy enough to install," he said. "We’re trying to get a little bit ahead of the curve and see what the implications of this might be."

Those involved with the UW experiment are testing for potential drawbacks, but some schools have seen these pitfalls firsthand.

At Brittan Elementary School in rural Sutter, Calif., parent complaints nixed a deal three years ago between school officials and local firm InCom Corp. to provide the district with RFID tags to track students’ attendance. InCom pulled out of the deal after some parents complained to the American Civil Liberties Union. (See "RFID spells trouble in tiny school district.")

And earlier this year, a technology company’s plans to help a Rhode Island school district improve bus safety by putting RFID tags on grade-schoolers’ backpacks were slammed by the ACLU as invasive and unnecessary. (See "ACLU rips district’s student-tracking pilot.")

At Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, N.Y., students were issued identification cards with RFID microchips imbedded in each card in 2004. Every microchip contains the student’s personal information, making it easier and less time consuming for teachers to take attendance and creating an automated system for school administrators. Enterprise teachers also wear an RFID badge that allows them to open any locker in the school.

Enterprise officials said it cost about $25,000 to install the RFID system—a reasonable cost that will only get cheaper, Borriello said. It cost UW about $100,000 to set up the infrastructure for its RFID experiment, he said, adding that the project had to be approved by the university’s internal review board, which evaluates the validity of on-campus scientific undertakings.

As tracking technology becomes more common, there remains firm opposition to its use on people. Although RFID technology might be useful in some cases, people’s actions and movements can be carefully recorded and documented, sometimes without consent, said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that cautions against the intrusion of technology into private life.

"Remember that this is relational—widespread tracking means knowing who is with whom when and how often," Tien wrote in an eMail message to eSchool News. "If you tracked me and my wife, you couldn’t help but know that we’re together at night."

Experiments like the one at UW could help researchers learn more about the possible pitfalls of tracking technology, but Tien said personal rights would be violated if RFID was used to track students, employees, or anyone else in their daily lives.

"So the big trick is that the technology must be designed so that the user … is in control of who [is doing the tracking], when, [and] for how long, as well as all of the data," he said.

Asked what he expects UW researchers to conclude from their RFID project, Tien said, "What we already know—tracking is creepy, it makes you vulnerable."

Evan Welbourne, the lead graduate student in the RFID project, said despite meticulous efforts to create an "RFID ecosystem" in UW’s computer science building, results are often unclear. For example, if two people appear to be next to each other, there is a 90 percent chance they are standing in the same room, talking to each other. But there is a 10 percent chance that one person is in a room next door, Welbourne said.

"This has been a very difficult, iterative process, but it has also been a great way to structure our thinking about privacy and security in next-generation RFID systems," said Welbourne, who is using the RFID experiment as a thesis project. "We’d like to evaluate whether user-centered RFID systems can be built to be useful and secure enough to justify the potential loss of privacy."

Borriello said the project results will include some guesswork to compensate for the unreliability of using RFID to track people, not boxes or equipment.

"We sometimes have to fill in missing data," he said. "The technology is pretty robust, but the reading is less than perfect."


Electronic Frontier Foundation

University of Washington