Teen’s cyber suicide raises questions

The family of a college student who killed himself live on the internet say they’re horrified his life ended before a virtual audience–and infuriated that viewers of the live webcam or operators of the web site that hosted it didn’t act sooner to save him.

Others say the tragic occurrence serves as a stark illustration of the power of internet video–and the lure of instant notoriety it provides.

Only after police arrived to find Abraham Biggs dead in his father’s bed did the live web feed stop Nov. 19–12 hours after the 19-year-old Broward College student first declared on a web site that he hated himself and planned to die.

"It didn’t have to be," said the victim’s sister, Rosalind Bigg. "They got hits, they got viewers, nothing happened for hours."

Biggs announced his plans to kill himself over a web site for bodybuilders, authorities said. He posted a link from there to Justin.tv, a site that allows users to broadcast live videos from their webcams.

A computer user who claimed to have watched said that after swallowing some pills, Biggs went to sleep and appeared to be breathing for a few hours while others cracked jokes.

Some members of his virtual audience encouraged him to do it, others tried to talk him out of it, and some discussed whether he was taking a dose big enough to kill himself, said Wendy Crane, an investigator with the Broward County medical examiner’s office.

Some users told investigators they did not take him seriously because he had threatened suicide on the site before.

Eventually, someone notified the moderator of the bodybuilding site, who traced Biggs’ location and called police, Crane said. The drama unfolded live on Justin.tv, which allows viewers to post comments alongside the video images.

As police entered the room, the audience’s reaction was filled with internet shorthand: "OMFG," one wrote, meaning "Oh, my [expletive] God." Others, either not knowing what they were seeing, or not caring, wrote "lol," which means "laughing out loud," and "hahahah."

His father, Abraham Biggs Sr., told the Miami Herald he didn’t want to watch the video.

"We were very good friends," he said. "It’s wrong that it was allowed to happen."

An autopsy concluded Biggs died from a combination of opiates and benzodiazepine, which his family said was prescribed for his bipolar disorder.

"Abe, i still wish this was all a joke," a friend wrote on the teenager’s MySpace page, where he described himself as a goodhearted guy who would always be available for his pals, no matter what time of day.

In a statement, Justin.tv CEO Michael Seibel said: "We regret that this has occurred and want to respect the privacy of the broadcaster and his family during this time."

It is unclear how many people watched it happen. The web site would not say how many people were watching the broadcast. The site as a whole had 672,000 unique visitors in October, according to Nielsen.

Biggs was not the first person to commit suicide with a webcam rolling. But the drawn-out drama–and the reaction of those watching–was seen as an extreme example of young people’s penchant for sharing intimate details about themselves over the internet.

Montana Miller, an assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said Biggs’ very public suicide was not shocking, given the way teenagers chronicle every facet of their lives on sites like Facebook and MySpace.

"If it’s not recorded or documented, then it doesn’t even seem worthwhile," she said. "For today’s generation it might seem, `What’s the point of doing it if everyone isn’t going to see it?’"

She likened Biggs’ death to other public ways of committing suicide, like jumping off a bridge.

Crane said she knows of a case in which a Florida man shot himself in the head in front of an online audience, though she didn’t know how much viewers saw. In Britain last year, a man hanged himself while chatting online.

Miami lawyer William Hill said there is probably nothing that could be done legally to those who watched and did not act. As for whether the web site could be held liable, Hill said there doesn’t seem to be much of a case for negligence.

"There could conceivably be some liability if they knew this was happening and they had some ability to intervene and didn’t take action," said Hill, who does business litigation and has represented a number of internet-based clients. But "I think it would be a stretch."

Condolences poured into Biggs’ MySpace page, where the mostly unsmiling teen is seen posing in a series of pictures with various young women. On the bodybuilding web site, Biggs used the screen name CandyJunkie. His Justin.tv alias was "feels_like_ecstacy."

Bigg described her brother as an outgoing person who struck up conversations with Starbucks baristas and enjoyed taking his young nieces to Chuck E. Cheese. He was health-conscious and exercised but was not a bodybuilder, she said.

"This is very, very sudden and unexpected for us," the sister said. "It boggles the mind. We don’t understand."


States disagree greatly on Amber Alert criteria

Authorities count hundreds of Amber Alert cases across the country as success stories when they start explaining why the politically popular bulletins are so important. Yet, despite a federal law meant to create a uniform system, an Associated Press (AP) review shows wide variations in what triggers an Amber Alert from one state to the next, which can heighten the tension when a suspect crosses state lines.

The AP examined Amber Alert records from all 50 states and found that some barely keep track of the alerts they’ve issued, let alone whether they worked. A few states don’t have anyone designated to oversee their programs.

That poor record-keeping makes it difficult to tell whether investigators have ever missed a chance to safely recover an abducted child because of differences in the state laws and their application.

Twelve states refuse to put out an alert when a parent calls police amid a custody fight, while others see that as a legitimate reason to enlist help from the public. Twelve states issue Amber Alerts for adults with mental or physical disabilities, while other states save their bulletins solely for abducted children.

Among the disparities those different interpretations create: New Jersey has issued just four alerts since 2005, while Michigan with an only slightly larger population has issued 100.

All that despite a 5-year-old federal law requiring that every state have a child abduction alert system in place. The law also requires that those systems be uniform to help coordination and that the U.S. Department of Justice appoint someone to get the states on the same page.

Critics question the basic premise of Amber Alerts that they help find and save abducted children. Kidnappers who kill children usually do so in the first six hours after they take their victims, experts say. Often it takes nearly that long just to get an alert issued.

A few days after she disappeared in April 2006, 10-year-old Jamie Rose Bolin of Purcell, Okla., was found dead in a neighbor’s apartment, the victim of what investigators said was a cannibalistic fantasy. Police did not initially put out an Amber Alert because they suspected she had run away and had no reports of an abduction.

An alert was eventually issued, but police said the girl probably was killed the day she was taken.

"There’s nothing wrong with making people feel better in the security of children it does exactly that," said Jack Levin, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston. "When you’re actually talking about preventing homicides, you have to look elsewhere for a solution."

Law enforcement officials insist the alerts can be crucial to recovering endangered children, even when multiple states are involved.

Take the case of Jerry Jones, who killed his infant daughter and his ex-girlfriend’s parents and sister in a small north Georgia town before kidnapping the couple’s other three kids. Motorists saw an alert on a highway sign and spotted the Ford Explorer driven by Jones, who was caught just across the Tennessee line and given a death sentence earlier this year.

The three children were found safe, and the Levi’s Call, as Amber Alerts are known in Georgia, "was the key to the whole thing," said John Bankhead, a spokesman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Amber Alerts started in 1996 after the murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas. The city developed a system where police work with broadcasters to put out bulletins on abducted children, similar to severe weather warnings.

Soon, states began creating their own Amber Alert systems, and Congress established its own law in 2003.

The federal law doesn’t have any teeth to it, though. It sets basic standards for issuing an alert but doesn’t penalize states that don’t follow them.

The law set aside $20 million to help establish and shore up state highway alert systems, a token sum that the states many of which already had programs in place have been slow to go after. About $4 million remains unclaimed, and 10 states haven’t applied for any of that money.

Not that they really need it. Every state has an alert system, and many had them before the federal law was passed. And federal authorities have no intention of asserting control of the state systems, regardless of the law’s establishment of a national point person to do just that.

"There will never be a federal Amber czar," said Jeffrey L. Sedgwick, an assistant attorney general at the Justice Department who nevertheless spends part of his time as national coordinator for the Amber Alert network. He’s the third person to fill that role since the position was created five years ago.

The loose federal legislation befits a weak alliance of states that pay little attention to their alert programs and sometimes squabble over when to issue the bulletins.

In California, authorities will issue an alert in cases involving a custody dispute. Not so in neighboring Nevada, which claims to have the most stringent criteria in the country for sounding the alarm. Also, California will issue an alert in the case of an abducted adult with a mental or physical disability, while Nevada will not.

"A state that issues alerts more liberally may be miffed when a neighboring state is more conservative and won’t do it," said Victor Schulze, senior deputy attorney general in Nevada. "But we’re concerned that an overuse of the system will numb people to the emergency characteristic of it."

Schulze said Nevada has turned down a number of requests from neighboring states because of criteria differences, but could not identify a specific case.

California Highway Patrol Lt. L.D. Maples, who runs the state’s Amber Alert system, said he is always worried that it could become overused, but noted that even the smallest bit of information can help the public identify an abducted child.

"If you have information that can be released that can help if they want to call it liberal let them call it liberal if it helps, I’m almost compelled to put that information out there," Maples said.

Despite their differences, California has issued 66 alerts since 2005, better than one a month, while Nevada has put out seven, roughly the same rate per capita.

Record-keeping also varies drastically among the states in Utah, detailed records of each alert that has been issued are available on the internet, including a narrative of each case, while Mississippi state police have only handwritten files on the three alerts they’ve issued since 2005. That makes it tough to tell whether an Amber Alert makes a child any more likely to be saved. Advocates, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, say it can’t hurt.

Sedgwick, whose main job is head of the Office of Justice Programs, acknowledged it’s not a perfect system but insisted the program thrives because states are in control rather than simply complying with federal mandates.

"This came from a grass-roots level," he said recently. "So for federal legislators to step in and say, ‘Gee, thanks for designing that and now we’re going to snatch it from you,’ that would not be terribly productive."


Justice Department’s Amber Alert page

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children


Plea deal ends case in teacher porn allegation

Former Norwich, Conn., substitute teacher Julie Amero has reached a plea deal to end a long-running case in which she was accused of exposing middle school students to online pornography, reports Newsday. Amero, 41, pleaded guilty Nov. 21 to one count of misdemeanor disorderly conduct in Norwich Superior Court. She will give up her teaching license and pay a $100 fine. Amero was convicted in 2007 of four counts of risk of injury to a minor. The charges stemmed from a 2004 incident in which pornography appeared on her classroom computer in view of several seventh-graders. Amero and several computer experts argued the computer was infected with spyware programs that caused the images to pop up beyond her control. A judge threw out her conviction after an analysis of the computer’s hard drive, concluding testimony against Amero was "flawed." Amero, who had no criminal record, was awaiting a new trial when she pleaded guilty to the disorderly conduct charge to end the case. "Oh honey, it’s over. I feel wonderful," Amero told the Hartford Courant a few minutes after entering her plea. "The Norwich police made a mistake. It was proven. That makes me feel like I’m on top of the world…"

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Wisconsin school districts embracing green technology

The Oshkosh Area School District is one of 56 Wisconsin districts that have signed a contract with the state vowing to reduce their energy use by 10 percent. To get there, Oshkosh hopes to make a sweeping change, from simple habits of individuals to upgrading the core equipment that runs its schools, reports the Oshkosh Northwestern. "This is a total district effort," said Interim Superintendent Bette Lang. "Every student and employee can play a role in saving energy." The contract is Lt. Governor Barbara Lawton’s Energy Star School Challenge. Currently, 56 Wisconsin districts have signed the commitment to improve energy efficiency. The state provides participants with resources–including measurement tools, strategic advice, and finance calculators–to help meet the goal. Randy Johnston, the Oshkosh district’s buildings and grounds director, said immediate steps will remain simple. Maintenance staff are already retrofitting lights with energy-efficient bulbs and installing automatic heating controls. The school board is also exploring sustainable building options for a proposed new elementary school on the north side of Oshkosh. Geothermal heating and cooling has dominated discussions so far. "It’s certainly the right thing to do from an ecological perspective. It’s just a matter of identifying if it’s fiscally responsible," said board member Dan Becker…

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Gates Foundation targets college graduation

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced a new initiative to double the number of college graduates who come from low-income families, citing education as the only reliable path out of poverty.

Officials unveiled the plan–which, if successful, would see 250,000 more college graduates per year–at the foundation’s Nov. 11 Forum on Education in Seattle. They hope to ensure that students receive their postsecondary degree or credential by the time they are 26.

"We learned through our research that if young people don’t complete a credential, their chances of ever doing so go way down," said Hilary Pennington, directed of special initiatives for the Gates Foundation.

The foundation plans to announce a small initial round of grants in December. Within a year, it plans to select eight to 10 states in which it will focus its work for the next three to five years. Other reports peg the total planned investment in these efforts as high as $3 billion, though foundation officials were unable to confirm this figure as of press time.

Gates Foundation co-chair and trustee Melinda Gates, who spoke at the forum, cited numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggesting that through 2014, more than half of all new jobs will require more than a high school degree.

"Historically in America, there have been two paths out of poverty. … You could graduate from high school at the top of your class, the bottom of your class, or not at all–[and] if you showed up smart, eager, and ready to work, you could earn a wage that would let you support a family," she said.

However, she said, the median wage for workers without a college education is now close to the poverty line for a family of four. To lower the number of families living in poverty, more people need to earn college degrees, she said.

"If we’re going to make a dent on poverty in America, we have to help more students get a postsecondary degree," she said.

Although policy makers have focused in the past on boosting enrollment and increasing students’ access to a college education, Gates said the payoff comes with actually earning a degree that helps students get a job with a decent wage.

To increase the number of students who receive postsecondary degrees, she said, incentives need to target college completion, not enrollment, by heightening the payoff for students, schools, and employers.

The foundation plans to start by targeting community colleges, because they enroll the majority of low-income students–and many have open admission and low tuition rates.

Gerardo E. de los Santos, president and chief executive officer of the League for Innovation in the Community College, said community colleges are often overlooked when discussing higher education.

"We are very excited and impressed that the Gates Foundation is recognizing the important role the community colleges play in this country by putting up a very sizable investment," he said.

Gates Foundation officials propose changing tuition and government funding so colleges get less money at the beginning of a student’s studies and more when the student finishes his or her degree program.

Another strategy the foundation plans to investigate is a performance-based incentive program, similar to one that was tried in Louisiana, Pennington said.

"In exchange for enrolling more than part-time, students get incentive payments: $250 when they register, $250 when they get their midcourse grades, and the rest at the end of the semester. So far, [Louisiana colleges] have achieved significant increases in student retention by putting resources in the hands of young people themselves–not by adding more faculty or student support services, or resources to the institution," she said.

De los Santos said most people in higher education are concerned with making sure their students are completing school.

"We realize it’s not just about enrollment and access, but about completion. We also need to make sure we prepare students to be able to move forward … and be valuable in the workforce," he said. "It’s all about, eventually, getting the students jobs."

Gates said the foundation also will work to promote partnerships between colleges and local employers to make sure there is a job waiting for students when they complete their degrees.

De los Santos said schools and businesses need to work more collaboratively together.

"Community colleges can lead in that. We can keep our finger on the pulse of what [businesses need] and the jobs that are being created," he said.

At the forum, Bill Gates also spoke of continuing to work to make sure high school students are graduating and prepared to succeed in college. The foundation plans to push for national standards and experiment with performance-based teacher pay systems.

"The first step in identifying effective teaching has to be setting fewer, clearer, higher standards that are aligned with the goal of graduating students from high school college-ready. You can’t compare teachers if they’re not pursuing a common standard," he said.

Gates said he is optimistic that technology will be able to create advanced data systems that can provide information about student progress and tell which teachers are getting the biggest achievement gains each year.

"If we’re going to retain them, we’re going to have to reward them. It’s astonishing to me that you could have a system that doesn’t allow you to pay more for strong performance, or for teaching in a particular school. That is almost like saying teacher performance doesn’t matter … and that’s basically saying students don’t matter," he said. "If we don’t pay great teachers more, we won’t develop and keep more great teachers. This isn’t computer science; it’s common sense."


Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

League for Innovation in the Community College


Editorial: Curing Unemployment

Unemployment, as of this writing, had reached a 14-year high. That’s just one more thing to worry about in an economy bristling with troublesome trends.

But now, it appears a clutch of ever-resourceful entrepreneurs has come up with a strategy that just might make a serious dent in this unsettling jobless trend.

The brainstorm: Hire people to take tests.

Cash for Scores: This idea could catch on at both the K-12 and higher-education levels. Schools from coast to coast are trying it with various tests, and Baylor University has been giving it a whirl in Waco, Texas, with the SAT.

In some ways, paying for test results is simply a more efficient variation on paying kids to study, another nascent trend. The scheme is reminiscent, too, of many of those "merit pay for teachers" programs we keep hearing about.

But those cash-for-studying and merit-pay plans are one-step removed, relying as they do on the antiquated theory that teaching or scholarship might actually affect test scores. The current crop of cash-for-score plans goes straight to the sine qua non of contemporary American education. After all, why should we pay instructors to teach to the test, when we can cut out the middle man and pay the test takers directly?

What may be the biggest program of its kind is just getting up to speed right now. In it, according to the New York Times, "corporations and foundations have pledged $79 million over five years to pay 13,000 students and their teachers in 67 high schools in six states $100 for each passing score on the math, science, or English Advanced Placement test."

One big question: Will it work?

Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad recently donated $6 million to Harvard’s EdLab (the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University) in an effort to determine if financial incentives pay off with increased performance. Such programs already are under way in numerous schools, including those in New York City, Chicago, and the District of Columbia.

In New York, early results are in from a program called Reach (for Rewarding Achievement). The program received $2 million in private donations for students who take Advanced Placement tests. Students at 31 high schools – six Roman Catholic and 25 public schools – took 345 more tests this year than last. According to the Associated Press (AP), students earned $500 each time they scored a 3, the lowest passing mark. They received $750 for each score of 4, and $1,000 for each top score, 5. Students raked in nearly $1 million, and another $500,000 went to the participating schools. (My sources are mute as to the whereabouts of the other half-million dollars.)

But how’s it working? Well, if your goal is getting kids to take the tests, the program is doing modestly well. The number of test takers went from 4,275 in 2007 to 4,620 this year.

On the outcome side, well . . . The number of tests passed actually declined, dropping from 1,481 in 2007 to 1, 476 this year, according to the New York Times.

At the higher-ed level, at least one school has been grabbing headlines with a similar program. Reports AP: "Baylor University in Waco, Tex., which has a goal of rising to the first tier of national college rankings, last June offered its admitted freshmen a $300 campus bookstore credit to retake the SAT, and $1,000 a year in merit scholarship aid for those who raised their scores by at least 50 points.

"Of this year’s freshman class of more than 3,000, 861 students received the bookstore credit and 150 students qualified for the $1,000-a-year merit aid, said John Barry, the university’s vice president for communications and marketing."

Howls of protest have been ringing around the ears of Baylor administrators ever since the university’s student newspaper broke the story. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors have been complaining that they, too, could use help paying for pricey textbooks. It’s unfair, they say, to limit the largess to freshmen only. Other critics have challenged the ethics of retesting already-admitted students.

Baylor responds that the program was just an innocent attempt to distribute more student aid, which it says is allocated according to SAT scores. If the practice should also happen to boost Baylor’s ranking on the U.S. News & World Report college ranking chart, why that would be just a happy bonus.

Even so, the ruckus had reached such a pitch that a Baylor spokesman at press time announced the university probably will end the practice. "I think we goofed," the spokesman confessed.

Baylor’s exuberance might have been misplaced, but it’s understandable. Cash for scores is a logical outcome of our national obsession with testing and rankings.

With the economy in tatters, however, funding for sketchy test-score schemes is likely to evaporate right along with the value of philanthropists’ portfolios. In some ways, that’s too bad.

Given America’s love affair with testing, if we were to add upwards of 50 million students to the employment rolls as professional test takers, it might be just the economic stimulus everybody’s looking for.


Opinion: A surprisingly sensible 21st-century skills report

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews, a self-professed critic of the so-called 21st-century skills movement in schools, writes of a new report that is "the first sensible report on 21st-century skills I have read." Mathews continues: "’Measuring Skills for the 21st Century’ was written by Elena Silva, senior policy analyst at the Education Sector think tank in Washington. It suggests that this idea is vital, important, and ought to be pursued, no matter what I say. I telephoned Silva to express my concern that we differ on this issue, since she always knows what she is talking about and I sometimes don’t. Our conversation reassured me. She has the same doubts I do about the loose and overheated way the 21st-century skills concept has been marketed, and the failure to give teachers useful guidance on what to do with it. She agrees with me that much of what is labeled 21st-century learning is not new, but represents what our best educators have been teaching for several centuries. Silva and I are also of one mind on the need to make sure this emphasis on analytical and critical thinking does not derail the national effort to make sure all students learn the basic content of the important disciplines, such as literature, math, and science. … Okay, I said. That sounds good. But … how about letting me see one or two schools that are already showing this is possible? Silva has done that. Her prime example is the New Technology High School Model, created by teachers, business executives, and community leaders in Napa, Calif., in 1996. They got money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and now have 40 schools in nine states…"

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‘High School Musical’-themed malware hits the web

Hackers have seized on the enormous popularity of the Disney movie High School Musical 3 to spread Trojan horses, adware, and other malicious code, reports CNET–a development that could give educators a timely reason to teach students of the dangers of internet scams, and using peer-to-peer networks to share files in particular. Teens interested in downloading High School Musical-related music and video on peer-to-peer networks should be wary of malware, warns Panda Security. While this might be obvious to older computer uses, younger users might not yet have experience with the social engineering used by malware writers, the security vendor said Nov. 21 in a press release. Social engineering is not new, of course, and its creators are constantly trying new ways to hook people in. The day after the U.S. presidential election, for example, there was a wave of Barack Obama-related video links that attempted to download malware as well. If a person opens a High School Musical-themed video or song on any peer-to-peer network such as eMule or eDonkey, his or her computer could be infected with malicious code. Panda recommends being cautious when downloading files. In particular, notice the file extension: Many of the malicious files have the extension ".exe," but that is rarely the case with a legitimate music or video file…

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What superintendents need from their CTOs

Communication and trust are critical in the relationship between a school district’s chief technology officer (CTO) and superintendent, said panelists at a Nov. 19 webinar that focused on what superintendents need from their CTOs for districts to integrate technology successfully into all facets of education.

School districts with successful educational technology programs have a strong superintendent, a strong CTO, and a strong relationship between the two, said Chip Kimball, superintendent of the Lake Washington School District in Redmond, Wash.

A former CTO himself, Kimball brought unique experience to the webinar, which was hosted by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Most superintendents are concerned first and foremost with student achievement, and they’re often thinking about ways to boost achievement, he said. CTOs should keep that in mind when explaining the value of school technology projects.

"[Explain] how this technology is going to solve some specific problems that [superintendents] would deal with on a day-to-day basis," Kimball advised ed-tech leaders. "Give them the ability to communicate their vision around teaching and learning."

Making sure they understand the technologies you’re proposing will help superintendents and other district leaders see the need for these technologies, participants said.

"Clean up your language" and avoid overly technical terms, so that others can relate to the technologies you’re proposing, suggested Bailey Mitchell, chief technology and information officer for Georgia’s Forsyth County Schools.

If school board members and other district leaders don’t understand the need for certain technologies, illustrating that need is the surest way to explain it to them.

"We created a digital story, took footage [of students using the technology], and wove it together to show how technology changed the learning environments," said Ed Zaiontz, executive director of information services for the Round Rock, Texas, Independent School District. "We showed those to the committee and let them know that was how we were proposing to use the technology."

Showing a superintendent how similar initiatives are progressing in other school districts is another strategy that CTOs can use, Zaiontz said.

It’s important for technology leaders to demonstrate the value of technology to a district’s instructional leadership, said Mitchell.

And while technology is important, superintendents often have much more on their plates.

"Superintendents live in a political reality–they are at the will of the board, of the people, of a governor or state legislature, so there’s a very real political component and that should be considered," Kimball said.

He added: "[Having] data means everything, and the more data that can be delivered to a superintendent, the more effective [a CTO] can be."

In addition to data and accountability, trust is paramount.

"Trust between a CTO and superintendent is essential," Kimball said, whether it concerns spending, opinions, or other day-to-day issues.

Trust is important, but so is the ability to disagree on a civil level, participants said.

"There needs to be a comfort level if the superintendent and CTO disagree," Zaiontz said.  "They need to be able to share the disagreement and talk [through] the differences."

Making sure your superintendent is engaged in the work will help drive technology initiatives. Although it can be empowering for a CTO to maintain total control over technology projects, it doesn’t always benefit the district, Kimball said.

CTOs play a key role in a district’s technology plans, and by implementing professional development around technology, a district’s leadership team can better collaborate on the district’s needs, focusing more intently on how technology can support those needs, said Joan Kowal, superintendent in residence at Nova Southeastern University.

"Every district has to look at what they must do to implement technology-based professional development, and each district is different–but looking at where you want to go and then providing the necessary technology [is a start]," she added.

After the superintendent and CTO determine together which direction they want to take their district, creating communities of practice, looking at what other schools are doing, developing best practices, and examining "pockets of excellence" in the district are all crucial, Kowal said.

"The whole notion of professional development is crucial … so that both superintendents and technology directors are really helping to lead and drive the results of the organization," she said.

A natural part of a CTO’s job is "to connect people, networks, and departmental silos," Mitchell said. "The CTO has got to cultivate a continued network with a set of leaders–it’s the relationship architecting that I think the superintendent comes to depend on heavily."

Understanding that a superintendent is a CTO’s No. 1 student, whether the CTO realizes it or not, will open lines of communication, he said.

"In working with superintendents, there has to be lots of patience and communication, and as a CTO, you need a certain level of passion that might rub off on the superintendent as it relates to the value of the [initiatives] you’re proposing," Mitchell said.

The webinar was part of CoSN’s Empowering the 21st Century Superintendent initiative, which was created to help superintendents develop a vision for using technology to expand teaching and learning opportunities while meeting the needs of changing school systems. eSchool News is CoSN’s media partner for this initiative.


Empowering the 21st Century Superintendent


Cost savings, solutions mark EDUCAUSE show

The 2008 EDUCAUSE conference in Orlando was dominated by vendors pitching new ways to cut costs on college campuses and technology officials discussing solutions to ongoing problems such as illegal file sharing and laying out how universities can create more energy-thrifty IT departments.

Although the conference–which drew more than 7,000 educators–was complete with complimentary meals and computer banks armed with fast internet connections, the economy’s downward spiral was evident in the exhibit hall. Only a few ed-tech companies unveiled their latest classroom technologies. Most vendors focused on strategies for cutting short-term and long-term costs for colleges and universities facing the prospect of major budget cuts in the next year.

New features for online courses also were popular as higher-education officials try to help students save money by cutting down on transportation costs. 

At an EDUCAUSE discussion forum Oct. 29, technology department heads detailed their perpetual battles against campus-based illegal file sharing and the added burden of hundreds of "takedown" notices issued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) warning colleges that their students might end up in court.

Jean Boland, vice president of technology services at Morrisville State College in New York, said her school first received "takedown" notices in March 2003, and the college responded by shutting students out of the campus network if they were found in violation of copyright laws.

The students were allowed back on the network once all infringing material was removed from their dormitory computers, said Boland, who added that students were shown a DVD issued by the RIAA explaining what kind of file sharing was considered illegal.

"We were trying to get proactive and get the message out to students," she said.

Still, students continued to share files illegally, and the RIAA warnings came in at a pace of about 1,000 a year, Boland said. 

"It didn’t matter how hard we tried," she said. "Nothing worked, and everything was out of our control."

While Morrisville students should have heeded professors’ warnings, Boland said the fines were a "tremendous financial hardship for our students … and there were very serious side effects."

The mother of a Morrisville student told Boland that the student had to drop out of school to pay the fine levied by the RIAA.

Morrisville officials sought a technical solution to the downloading problem when the school bought Audible Magic, an electronic media management system designed to stop peer-to-peer file sharing of music, movies, or computer software.

Boland said the number of RIAA warnings dropped dramatically after using the software.

One of several point-counterpoint forums at this year’s conference was titled, "The Community Source Model: Promise or Peril for Higher Ed?" Brad Wheeler, vice president for IT services at Indiana University, and Adrian Sannier, a technology officer and professor at Arizona State University, discussed the pros and cons of colleges using commercial software prevalent in the corporate world.

"There is no one-size-fits-all solution," Wheeler said. "Not everything should be licensed commercially, and not everything should be built in pure open-source model."

Sannier said it would be cost- and time-efficient for universities to use software that has proven effective in corporations. Tweaking commercial software to fit the needs of higher education, he said, would save IT staff from sitting through tedious meetings, planning out every little detail required to build a customized system. 

"I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that the software we can develop as a community can substantially match our business any better than the commercial way," Sannier said.

IT officials also addressed saving money through the gradual "greening" of an IT department.

At a forum discussion with chief information officers and campus administrators, Wendell C. Brase, vice chancellor for administrative and business services at the University of California Irvine, said tech officials should know their college’s carbon footprint, promote more energy-efficient ways to cool servers, and cut energy usage in laboratories that generally use the majority of a campus’s electricity.

Brase stressed that green policies should not be isolated to campus IT departments. At UC Irvine, he predicted, student housing would increase dramatically in the coming years, cutting down on the number of students who commute to class every day.

"This is the greenest thing a college or university can do," he said.

Cooling computer servers also is an enormous cost for every large university, Brase said. Researchers and IT managers are discovering new ways to cool down servers without setting the air conditioning to its lowest temperatures. Brase said servers work efficiently at 90 degrees, several degrees higher than most IT officials had believed.

Building a roof over the server area in a lab building, Brase said, would block off the rest of the room and limit the square footage that needed to be cooled. Universities also can pump outside air into the server room, avoiding air conditioning altogether.

News from the exhibit hall

Alcatel-Lucent demonstrated a bevy of security features, including wireless cameras, panic alarms, and alerts that are sent across the entire campus community–even to off-campus students. And while Alcatel-Lucent also can help make a college campus mobile–using wireless 802.11n audio, data, and video conferencing technologies with application sharing–the company also is committed to sustainable, environmentally-friendly technologies, officials said. Alcatel Lucent claims its products use up to 50 percent less power than competitors’ solutions, featuring lowered cooling requirements and reducing energy-intensive power backup requirements.

ANGEL Learning unveiled new tools at this year’s conference, including Secure Browser 2.0, which ensures the security of a proctored testing environment by locking down students’ access to the internet and their ability to launch other applications or communicate with peers using ANGEL Learning Management System messaging tools while taking an assessment. The new secure browser–which could meet schools’ needs to ensure the integrity of testing for online students, thanks to a new federal law–comes with assessment time limits and options for question-at-a-time delivery, randomized question delivery, and randomized answer delivery.

Datatel Inc. introduced the Datatel Gradebook, showing conference attendees an expanded toolset that would benefit any classroom or lecture hall. Gradebook’s functions allow educators to spend more time evaluating student progress, tracking grades over a long period of time. The program also allows students to view their grades and see any instructor feedback given on homework assignments, quizzes, and exams as soon as grades are submitted online.

Jenzabar announced that its new learning management system works with the open-source course management system Moodle. Students and faculty will benefit from a single point of access to eLearning and online self-service, and school IT administrators will have access to automatic uploads of user accounts, courses, and student enrollment lists from the college’s administrative system, the company said.

The new Lenovo Thinkpad X301 notebook is ideal for schools focused on "greening" IT departments, Lenovo said. The Thinkpad X301, which has been recognized for its environmental friendliness, reportedly uses 25 percent less power compared with its predecessors. All Thinkpad models come with a spill-resistant keyboard, a fingerprint reader, round-the-clock service and support, and an industry-leading warranty.

NetSupport released NetSupport School 10.01, the latest version of its software for managing computer use in a classroom or lab setting. Student thumbnails allow an instructor to maintain a full view of all classroom computers, mouse over any image for a real-time "zoom," see active web sites and applications on each computer, and identify students’ print jobs. Instructors also can take control of a student’s machine.

Procera Networks’ DPI network-management platform includes LiveView, a module that displays Datastream Recognition Definition Language (DRDL) and enables university IT administrators to see all network traffic simultaneously. Administrators can also target a specific connection in real time. This allows network managers to help users–including students and faculty–within seconds or minutes of network problems surfacing, Procera said. The company’s platform also features tools for traffic shaping and filtering, helping IT departments avoid network congestion. Procera announced last month that a Tier-1 mobile operator selected its award-winning PacketLogic PL10000 platform to optimize its network performance, reduce infrastructure costs and create new services for its mobile broadband customers.

Qwizdom’s student remotes create an interactive classroom that allows for responses to multiple questions and displays instantaneous feedback, letting students know if they got the questions right or wrong. The instructor is notified when classroom responses are complete, and he or she can cover the subject material more in-depth or move on to the next topic, depending on how many students answered correctly. The remotes align with whiteboard devices and pen and tablet interfaces, Quizdom said.

Samsung announced that audio capabilities would be added to its line of document cameras. The new feature will be available through a simple download. The document cameras–which already have a video function–will now allow educators to record and posts lectures to web sites or create podcasts for students to download and listen to outside of class. The video and audio functions also can be used to record faculty presentations and meetings. Samsung’s document cameras can be connected with any electronic whiteboard on the market, the company says. 

SchoolDude showed its ITAMDirect hosted solution for streamlining IT asset management, which allows administrators to monitor classrooms and plan for daily, weekly, and monthly lessons. ITAMDirect’s features include alerts for missing IT assets and software license agreement violations. The program can be especially useful as school budgets tighten, SchoolDude said. Company officials say schools can save 25 percent on organization license renewals and reduce audits on IT assets by 50 percent annually by using the software.

SSPS Inc., a predictive analytics technologies company, can help colleges and universities recruit, assess, and retain students, provide for more informed academic advisors, and raise more money from alumni, the company said. SSPS helps colleges capture and analyze alumni attitudes and values, providing more information to target graduates for money that could grow a campus’s endowment. Student advisors can better identify a path for students, too, as SSPS programs provide more background on students’ strengths and weaknesses.

For colleges and universities struggling to determine how much money they have for upcoming projects, TeamDynamix has introduced a web-based project and portfolio manager solution designed to help higher-education officials as they make tough decisions with dwindling budgets. TeamDynamix’s project and portfolio manager can help present a clear picture of what is fiscally feasible in coming months and years, the company said, as campus committees and other decision makers determine their institution’s most pressing projects.

Camtasia Relay, from TechSmith, lets college students stop, rewind, and review lectures that prove crucial for homework and quiz and test preparation. The lecture-capture software–which uses a single central server and doesn’t require lecturers to be technology experts–allows students to watch and listen to classroom lectures from their dorm laptop or their mobile device instead of relying on hand-written notes that can be sloppy and incomplete. For college faculty, recording a lecture takes only a few clicks of the mouse. Camtasia Relay runs on PCs, Windows servers, Macs, and other networks and comes with eMail notifications and a variety of publishing options.

Turning Technologies’ personal response system, ResponseWare, gives instructors the ability to analyze student answers efficiently, helping to craft lesson plans and adjust to class questions on the fly. Using the handheld ResponseWare clickers, students can immediately respond to teachers’ questions in class, giving educators real-time information that can show how some students–or an entire class–struggle to grasp a lecture or concept. ResponseWare has a presentation mode for more interactive lessons and options for starting in-class team competitions, where students answer questions and see results right away.

Wimba has a full menu of options for a more technologically integrated classroom, including virtual office hours for college faculty. Instead of relying on one- or two-hour windows to meet with students once a week, college professors–using Wimba’s suite of services–can conduct office hours online, chatting with several students at once and answering questions without rushing through a short in-person appointment. Wimba unveiled the virtual office-hour program after a recent study showed that only 15 percent of college students meet with professors outside the classroom. Wimba also announced that its software for facilitating online video, text, voice, and application sharing now works with the open-source course management system Moodle.