Citing high gas prices, more students taking online classes

The Knoxville News Sentinel reports that more students are taking online classes as a way to save money on high gas prices, a Tennessee Board of Regents official says. Associate Vice Chancellor Robbie Melton is in charge of online and distance learning for the system, which oversees six universities, 13 two-year colleges, and 26 technology centers. He said online registration had been averaging about a 7 percent to 10 percent increase each year. But he said he’s noticed it jump 29 percent this summer compared with last year, and he’s anticipating a 20 percent increase this fall. "When they call, they keep saying, ‘The gas prices, it’s just unbelievable,’" Melton said of students. Those who take online classes still have to buy textbooks, and the online classes generally cost the same as a typical class. But students who have long commutes say they expect to save money, with gas prices in Tennessee nearing $4 per gallon for regular unleaded…

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Demand for data puts engineers in spotlight

Engineers who run data centers are in high demand as the growth in such facilities struggles to keep up with the increasing demands of internet-era computing, the New York Times reports. For years, these employees toiled in relative obscurity in the engine rooms of the digital economy, amid the racks of servers and storage devices that power everything from online videos to corporate eMail systems. Their mission was to keep the computing power plants humming, while scant thought was given to rising costs and energy consumption. Today, however, data center experts are no longer taken for granted. The torrid growth in data centers to keep pace with the demands of internet-era computing, their immense need for electricity, and their inefficient use of that energy pose environmental, energy, and economic challenges, experts say. That means people with the skills to design, build, and run a data center that does not endanger the power grid are suddenly in demand. Their status is growing, as are their salaries–climbing more than 20 percent in the last two years, into six figures for experienced engineers…

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Mom in MySpace hoax pleads not guilty

A Missouri woman accused of contributing to a teenager’s suicide by creating a fake MySpace account to taunt the girl pleaded not guilty in federal court June 16, CNET reports. After she was implicated in the hoax aimed at harassing a teenage neighbor, Lori Drew of the St. Louis area was charged with conspiracy and accessing protected computers without authorization to get information used to inflict emotional distress. (See "Woman indicted in MtSpace suicide case.") http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/top-news/index.cfm?i=53829 The case captured the attention of the blogosphere and the world and has led lawmakers to consider legislation aimed at curbing cyber bullying…

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As Bill Gates departs, educators mull his legacy

As Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates prepares to leave the company he has been associated with for the last three decades, school leaders are reflecting on the enormous impact he has had on both education and technology.

Gates’ legacy in educational technology no doubt will be influenced by people’s opinions of Microsoft itself. While there is no arguing that Gates helped bring computing to the masses and set the standard for office productivity software, his critics would say that Microsoft overcharged millions of customers and engaged in monopolistic business practices in order to crush competitors–helping Gates amass one of the largest fortunes in the world, worth an estimated $58 billion.

Now, Gates is leaving Microsoft at the end of the month to devote his full attention to the foundation he and his wife, Melinda, created to make a difference with this enormous fortune. And with Gates taking a more active role in the foundation, many observers say schools are likely to benefit.

"As Bill [Gates] turns full attention to his work with the foundation, there is great potential to see even more significant work supporting technology in education arising there," said Don Knezek, chief executive officer for the International Society for Technology in Education.

Gates has been a leading proponent of high school reform. Three years ago, he addressed the nation’s governors and urged them to redesign America’s high schools to meet the challenges of the new century.

"America’s high schools are obsolete," Gates told the governors that day (see "What’s wrong with U.S. high schools–and how we can make them better"). "By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded–though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean that our high schools–even when they’re working exactly as designed–cannot teach our kids what they need to know today. Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It’s the wrong tool for the times."

Through his charitable foundation, Gates has committed tens of millions of dollars to projects that aim to redesign high schools and make them more relevant for the 21st century.

"Bill Gates is a rare and unique individual who has used his wealth and gain to promote and reinvigorate public education," said James Harmon, an English teacher and Apple Distinguished Educator at Euclid High School in Ohio.

"Gates understands that large, comprehensive high schools have become far too impersonal for the unique needs of current students. He recognizes the importance of students making personal connections to their education and their teachers through collaboration and technology," Harmon said. "The proof will be in these students’ ability to participate in the new global economy. I wish him well in his future philanthropic endeavors and look forward to his next initiative."

Gates’ commitment to high school reform, and his belief that technology can be a driving force for change in schools, came together in 2006 with the opening of Philadelphia’s School of the Future, which was designed in consultation with Microsoft executives. (See "‘School of the Future’ opens doors.")

"Bill Gates certainly emphasizes the importance [of] facilitating innovation and 21st-century skills in our students," said Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. "His products, his company, and his work have advanced our thinking around what is possible with technology … through projects [such as] the School of the Future in Philadelphia–and I hope that his work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will help to build upon what [educators] have learned there."

For all the criticism Microsoft has taken for its predatory business practices, it was Gates who was the driving force behind the idea that school software programs should be able to work together and share data in real time, regardless of their manufacturer–from back-office applications to student information systems to library and food-service systems.

Gates first outlined this vision of school software interoperability at the American Association of School Administrators conference in 1999, and his company took the lead in creating what is now the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), although Microsoft later stepped back into a supporting role in this initiative.

(Ironically, Gates was supposed to deliver the keynote address at the 1998 AASA conference, but he couldn’t make it that year–he was busy testifying before the Senate during the Microsoft antitrust hearings.)

Nearly a decade after Gates’ AASA address, research suggests that schools’ investment in SIF-compliant software is paying off: According to an independent study of three school systems willing to share their experiences, SIF has led to measurable cost savings as a result of the easier integration of software applications, more effective use of staff time, and increases in government funding that come from better tracking and reporting of student data. (See "Study: SIF pays off for schools.")

Susan Patrick, executive director of the North American Council for Online Learning and a former director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, called Gates a "pioneer" who has revolutionized productivity software, spearheaded multiplayer gaming and collaboration, run a company rich in data-driven decision making, and used eLearning and on-demand training to bolster skills and creativity in his own company workforce. 

"In looking at the pressing issues in our nation’s schools, Gates is singularly qualified to bring the best of all of these innovations to help fix education in America–combining the best of eLearning, gaming, and productivity into new models for our children’s schools," Patrick said.

"Gates has a fundamental understanding of what’s broken in our schools and how technology can be leveraged to fix problems, bridge gaps, and even go around the barriers–to innovate and create new educational opportunities," she added. "The [Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation] will provide the perfect platform for Gates to focus intently on schools, build on the creativity and innovation that is the hallmark of his corporate work, and pinpoint solutions to help our children."

Concluded Patrick: "Gates recognizes that you can’t fix schools without more effective use of technology to support innovation."

Links:

Microsoft Corp.

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

School of the Future

International Society for Technology in Education

State Educational Technology Directors Association

North American Council for Online Learning

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Charging by the byte to curb internet traffic

Three of the country’s largest internet service providers are threatening to clamp down on their most active subscribers by placing monthly limits on their online activity, the New York Times reports. One of them, Time Warner Cable, began a trial of "internet metering" in one Texas city early this month, asking customers to select a monthly plan and pay surcharges when they exceed their bandwidth limit. The idea is that people who use the network more heavily should pay more, the way they do for water, electricity, or, in many cases, cell-phone minutes. That same week, Comcast said it would expand on a strategy it uses to manage internet traffic: slowing down the connections of the heaviest users, so-called bandwidth hogs, at peak times. On June 12, AT&T also said that limits on heavy use were inevitable and that it was considering pricing based on data volume. All three companies say that placing caps on broadband use will ensure fair access for all users. Internet metering is a throwback to the days of dial-up service, but at a time when video and interactive games are becoming popular, the experiments could have huge implications for the future of the web…

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Santa Fe OKs plan for wireless, despite objections

The Santa Fe, N.M., city council has unanimously approved a plan to provide wireless internet service in libraries and other city buildings, over the objections of those who say they are electrically sensitive, the Associated Press reports. Free wireless will be available by next year at three public libraries, a convention center still under construction, city hall, the municipal airport, and two recreation centers. Yet, opponents complain they are sickened by electromagnetic pollution and say it will keep them from using the libraries or attending meetings in city hall. City attorney Frank Katz, who had been asked to determine whether the opponents are covered by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, said there’s no legal case in which hypersensitivity to wireless signals has been found to be a disability, nor has any case identified Wi-Fi as its cause. But Julie Tambourine, an advocate for the disabled and homeless, said that legal analysis is flawed, because it doesn’t take into account those with diabetes, seizure disorders, respiratory ailments, and other conditions that can be adversely affected by microwave radiation. She said opponents could have been accommodated under federal law by having one of the three library branches be designated Wi-Fi-free…

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Federal trial begins in DISD technology case

The former technology chief for the Dallas Independent School District goes to trial today on charges ranging from bribery and money laundering to conspiracy, the Dallas Morning News reports. Allegations of bribes and kickbacks in DISD’s technology department hung like a dark cloud over the beleaguered district for years. Then, in summer 2005, the FBI began an 18-month federal corruption investigation that resulted in indictments against two former DISD administrators and the head of a Houston computer company. Now, the saga moves into its next phase. Ruben Bohuchot, at one time DISD’s technology boss, and Frankie Wong, once the district’s largest technology vendor, are set for trial in Dallas June 16. The case goes back more than six years, when Wong and Bohuchot forged a friendship around boats. Bohuchot enjoyed being on the water, and Wong, through one of his companies, controlled two deep-sea fishing boats. Over the years, Wong allowed Bohuchot unfettered access to those yachts at no charge. About the same time, Mr. Wong’s companies and its affiliates were winning DISD contracts worth tens of millions of dollars…

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Botnets: Beware the ‘army of darkness’

Cyber criminals are looking for holes in your school systems’ networks so they can seize control of computers to launch attacks anonymously, experts say–distributing spam, viruses, or "Trojan Horse" assaults while often avoiding prosecution. The problem has grown so pervasive that computer-security experts have taken to referring to botnets as the "army of darkness"–and education institutions are this army’s targets of opportunity.

Craig Schiller, the chief information security officer at Portland State University who is widely considered a leading authority on "botnets," or collections of computers under a hacker’s control, said school officials’ desire to keep computer networks open to all students and faculty leaves an opening for cyber criminals looking for networks without tight security measures.

"The general environment on a university campus is for open access, which usually means not a whole lot of protection," Schiller said, adding that schools and universities with massive hard-drive space are especially vulnerable, because that trait is desirable to botnet hackers.

Botnets are a growing problem for CIOs worldwide–and even federal authorities have gotten involved. Addressing the problem, Schiller said, starts with alerting schools’ tech chiefs to the prevalence of botnets, which–in some cases–can shut down an entire computer network.

"The bad guys’ side is heavily involved in [botnets], but we find people on the other side who are still not exposed to this [problem]," said Schiller, who gives presentations on the dangers of botnets at technology conferences across the country and penned the book Botnets: The Killer Web Applications in April 2007.

Last November, a University of Pennsylvania junior was charged in an ongoing investigation into the use of botnets on college campuses. The botnet attacks caused a university server to crash after four days of nonstop traffic.

The hacker, Owen Thor Walker, 18, who was part of a botnet scheme that infected more than a million computers across the world, pleaded guilty to the crime in April. His sentencing was delayed late last month. Walker is scheduled to be sentenced July 15, according to the courts.

Botnets have attacked businesses–both mom-and-pop shops and multinational corporations alike–and a bevy of web sites in recent years. In his presentation to tech chiefs, Schiller mentions a group of botnets that attacked a dozen gambling web sites in 2004. The botnets essentially held the sites ransom for $10,000 to $50,000 each.

Several technology department heads at the K-12 level interviewed by eSchool News said they had never heard of botnets and were unaware of their potential to harm campus computers.

"It’s a case where you don’t know what you don’t know," Schiller said.

Bob Moore, executive director of IT services for the Blue Valley Union School District in Kansas, said his school system has not encountered any botnet attacks in recent years, but a student computer was once hacked and used to relay spam–a common maneuver of botnets.

"It is one of those issues you have to stay on top of," he said in an eMail message to eSchool News. "As with any security issue, there is no one single thing you can do to protect yourself."

Moore said technology directors should keep a constant eye on their school system’s firewalls, spyware, and server configuration, making sure updates are done properly and "necessary security patches are applied." Moore added that administrative rights should be limited in school district networks, instead of maintaining a completely open, online environment.

Federal prosecutors who find that school computers were used in cyber attacks do not prosecute the school, officials said. Instead, they attempt to track the perpetrator.

Still, Schiller and school technology officials said botnets could devastate school system networks, making computers inoperable in the worst cases. Once a hacker creates a network of botnets in a school, IT managers must spend days or weeks to locate the infected machines, clean them, and bolster security shortcomings throughout their buildings or campus.

"In terms of impact, not only can botnets utilize bandwidth or possibly compromise data security, they can be a huge drain on the time of IT staff, time needed to clean up the messes," Moore said.

If a botnet uses a school computer to distribute thousands of spam eMail messages through the school system’s domain, "others’ spam filters may begin to block messages from your district," Moore said. "Not only would that be inconvenient, but it could cause public relations problems."

Although there will never be a cure-all for botnets, Schiller said a host of protections exist that schools can employ. At colleges and universities, where large servers are required for an enormous amount of financial and student information, Schiller said tech chiefs should isolate those servers from the rest of the campus, creating an obstacle for botnets roaming university networks.

Programs that show which computers have been contacted by botnets could also give technology chiefs the upper hand, he said. Conducting online searches for your school’s name and a common spam subject such as "Viagra" could give schools the heads-up if spam eMails are being sent from their servers. Schiller also suggests eliminating all generic accounts, which easily can be exploited by hackers looking to create one botnet that eventually could spread to other computers, bogging down networks’ speed and possibly making computers unusable.

Gabor Sziladi, the director of information technology for the Humboldt County School District in Eureka, Calif., said his school system has not detected any signs of botnets in recent years, but it remains a concern among administrators.

Sziladi said he disagrees that school districts’ openness makes them targets for botnets. He said botnet attacks are avoidable if schools’ technology chiefs are willing to segregate teacher computers from student computers, making it more difficult for botnets to affect an entire school, campus, or district.

When Portland State University detected a massive botnet attack a few years ago, Schiller said technology department officials took several steps to find the 300 infected computers and prevent future attacks. Officials created a program that searches for "bot-like" behavior across the university’s networks, including password guessing and massive eMail blasts sent out in rapid succession. But even weeding out botnets won’t stop hackers from creating more sophisticated, "more malicious" botnet strategies, Schiller said.

"You’ll have lots of really good bullets, but you won’t have one that will take it all out," he said. "The [attacks] from two years ago are much different than the ones we’re seeing now."

As botnets become a lucrative business–one spammer earned $3 million a month, according to Schiller–organized criminals are providing resources to supplement these crimes and turn an even larger profit.

"Remember, these aren’t the hackers from the 90s," Schiller said. "These hackers are being paid by organized crime not to be seen."

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LEARN MORE ABOUT THE BOTNET PHENOMENON

For more information on the phenomenon of botnets in and outside of education, here is a selection of links you might find useful (Note: These resources are not under the purview of eSchool News):

Educause security presentation
 
PC World report
 
Information Week report

Samphaus botnet roundup 
http://www.spamhaus.org/Rokso/listing.lasso?-op=cn&spammer=Russian%20Business%20Network 

Technology News Daily report 
http://www.technologynewsdaily.com/node/7145

ars technica report 
http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20080320-florida-botnet-herder-sheared-by-cops-faces-10-years-in-pen.html

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

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