Computer repair program puts eager students to work for schools

Tennessee’s Memphis City Schools is paying students $7.25 an hour this summer to complete a 240-hour computer maintenance class, hoping to put them to work as PC troubleshooters in a district with 30,000 computers, reports the Commercial Appeal. For 115 students, mostly seniors, the deal was too sweet to pass up. They get an air-conditioned summer job that can continue when school starts and a chance to learn a skill they’re pretty sure they’ll use the rest of their lives. The city schools have computer technicians, but with the volume of desktop and handheld models, each is responsible for maintaining 750 to 800 computers, plus software installations. If one goes down in a classroom that might have only a handful to start with, learning for a significant portion of students slows to a crawl. "You can see how this is going to help us," said Chief Technology Officer Curtis Timmons. "We are trying to expand our tech support by using the students."

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Ohio e-schools feel budget squeeze

Parents and students of Ohio’s online schools fear that when lawmakers pass the state budget, the state’s 28 internet-based charter schools will disappear into cyberspace, reports the Cincinnati Enquirer. Lawmakers this week are trying to bridge wide gaps between House and Senate versions of the proposed state budget and plug a projected $3.2 billion hole in revenue projections. Observers predict that some unpopular spending cuts may get a second look, including school cuts. Online charter schools are among the most vulnerable. "My hunch is that the pain will be distributed fairly across the district schools and the brick-and-mortar schools, with the cyber charters taking a larger hit," predicted Terry Ryan, a vice president at the Thomas Fordham Institute, a think tank in Dayton and Washington, D.C. Gov. Ted Strickland has proposed cutting e-school funding by about 70 percent in budget plans later adopted and modified by the House. Other charter schools would lose about 20 percent, but traditional public schools would maintain funding…

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Court affirms reimbursement for special education

In a decision that could help disabled students obtain needed services yet cost public school districts millions of dollars, the Supreme Court ruled on June 22 that parents of special-education students may seek government reimbursement for private school tuition, even if they have never received special-education services in a public school, reports the New York Times. The case before the court involved a struggling Oregon high school student, identified in court documents only as T.A., whose parents removed him from public school in the Forest Grove district in his junior year and enrolled him in a $5,200-a-month residential school. Although Forest Grove officials had noticed T.A.’s difficulties and evaluated him for learning disabilities, he was found ineligible for special-education services. Only after he enrolled in the private school did doctors say T.A. had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other disabilities. The issue in the Forest Grove case was whether a 1997 amendment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, prohibits private-school tuition reimbursement for students who never received special-education services in public school. Forest Grove, backed by school boards associations across the country, argued that the amendment precluded reimbursement for those, like T.A., who never received special-education services in public school. But the high court, in a 6-to-3 ruling, rejected that argument…

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Dueling curricula put copyright ed in spotlight

A clash over education materials from two copyright awareness organizations has thrust copyright education in the national spotlight, while giving educators and students some new resources for understanding how copyrights work.

Shortly after the Copyright Alliance Education Foundation (CAEF) launched "Think First, Copy Later," which contains education materials assembled by the film, music, and software industries, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) launched a curriculum of its own, called "Teaching Copyright," designed for high school educators who want to discuss copyright issues in the classroom.

"Most of these curriculums paint the copyright issue in a very singular way and talk about it as something that only benefits the industries," said Richard Esguerra, an activist for EFF, which champions the public interest in digital-rights issues. "Copyright infringement is a real issue, but there’s also a ‘know your rights’ angle and a right way to use copyrighted materials" legally.

Esguerra said technology puts even more copyrighted works in the hands of students, and students should know both the legal limitations of copyright law as well as ways to make the law work for them.

"We felt–especially because we’ve been watching new technology develop, and editing video and audio is more and more popular–that it would be a shame to keep people from using tools at their disposal to express themselves in new ways, just because the only copyright information they get is from industries who don’t want them to do any copying," he said.

An EFF press release announcing "Teaching Copyright" described it as an "unbiased" alternative to CAEF’s curriculum, "because we wanted people to recognize that there is a different viewpoint out there," Esguerra said.

In response to that press release, CAEF Chairman Patrick Ross took to his organization’s blog, writing that he welcomes EFF’s "contribution to our nation’s educational resources, even if I don’t welcome their apparent reason for doing so, namely to counter the efforts of [CAEF]."

Added Ross: "It appears we at the CAEF have a far greater confidence in the aptitude and reasoning of America’s educators than does the Electric Frontier Foundation."

Ross said CAEF supports the availability of multiple resources on copyright education, and he believes educators "will recognize [high-] quality instructional materials" and use them to their advantage. CAEF’s own program, he said, was developed with input from educators.

EFF Activism and Technology Manager Tim Jones responded to Ross’s post via EFF’s blog, saying the organization has "enormous faith in our teachers’ ability to recognize a biased curriculum when they see it, which is why we wanted to give them a balanced alternative."

Jones wrote that CAEF’s materials do not adequately cover the fair-use doctrine, which grants the right to "quote, transform, and comment on copyrighted material without the original author’s permission." According to Jones, CAEF’s materials also present only one side of peer-to-peer file sharing, instead of asking teachers and students to examine both the music industry’s viewpoint as well as the impact technology can have on the law.

"This generation of students will be rewriting copyright law before they hit retirement, just as previous generations have done," Jones wrote. "’Teaching Copyright’ was designed to encourage students not only to think about the legal frameworks they have inherited, but also to think about the law they’d like to create."

In a statement to eSchool News, CAEF Executive Director Gayle Osterberg said: "This isn’t about waging an advocacy debate in our nation’s schools. … It is simply about providing tools, information, and resources" to help students understand copyright law.

The initial feedback from educators to CAEF’s curriculum has been positive, Osterberg said, and CAEF continues to work with educators to make its classroom materials as effective as possible.

Thanks to new technologies that make it easier than ever to copy and distribute copyright-protected works, "copyright issues have never been more visible," Osterberg said, "and they are presenting unique challenges for students and teachers inside the classroom."

EFF’s Esguerra said the dispute over copyright education is itself a lesson to students, who should be encouraged to look at all sides of the issue.

"Using someone’s copyright material in a cool and legal way" can only help to stimulate creativity, collaboration, and 21st-century skills, said Esguerra.

He added: "Collaboration is another exciting piece of what technology is enabling. Copyright is involved in all these things, but we shouldn’t let copyright law hinder us from the potential that we can achieve."

Links:

Copyright Alliance Education Foundation press release

Copyright Alliance Education Foundation blog post

Think First, Copy Later

Electronic Frontier Foundation press release

Electronic Frontier Foundation blog post

Teaching Copyright

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Campus payroll project sees delays, more costs

A second attempt by the University of Wisconsin System to install a new computer payroll program is millions of dollars over budget and a year behind schedule. Moreover, a company fired over subpar work in creating Wisconsin’s statewide voter database in 2007 is working as a subcontractor on the project.

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Campus payroll project sees delays, more costs

A second attempt by the University of Wisconsin System to install a new computer payroll program is millions of dollars over budget and a year behind schedule. Moreover, a company fired over subpar work in creating Wisconsin’s statewide voter database in 2007 is working as a subcontractor on the project.

The system’s top budget official, Tom Anderes, told the Board of Regents this month that planning for the project alone is now expected to cost $12 million. A year ago, officials had said planning would cost $1.6 million and implementation would begin that fall. In February, they raised the planning budget to $8 million and said it would last through this summer.

Anderes told the regents that the university system would seek approval from them in September for a budget and timeline for the remainder of the project, which has always been expected to take years.

University spokesman David Giroux said June 16 that planning was taking longer and costing more, but he said it was because the project is more complex than anticipated.

"The project requires much more extensive planning and analysis than we originally predicted, and we are committed to a very thorough planning process," he said. "We know that is key to success."

He also said the subcontractor, Accenture, was playing a limited role and was well qualified for the work.

The university has long wanted to replace the aging computer system that pays its 60,000 employees and keeps track of benefits and other human-resources information. The program, developed in 1975, is written in a computer language so obsolete that few programmers know how to fix it.

A first attempt to replace it with Lawson Software was scrapped in 2006 after years of work and a cost of $28.4 million. That project, a public relations embarrassment for the university, was doomed by poor project leadership and planning, bureaucratic infighting, and technical complexity.

The university started planning for a second attempt in 2007, this time using Oracle’s PeopleSoft system.

Giroux said earlier planning budget estimates and timelines had to be changed, because "we did not have the full picture of how complex this project would be." He noted that a state audit in 2007 of troubled information technology projects identified inadequate planning as the source of most problems.

CIBER Inc., a Colorado-based contractor hired for the first stage of planning, identified far more gaps between the software’s capabilities and the system’s current business practices than anticipated, Giroux said. That prompted the university to hire Chicago-based Huron Consulting Group to devise a blueprint for how to implement the changes.

Huron is helping decide which business practices the university campuses must change to use the new system and what modifications should be made to the software to support them. Huron, in turn, has hired the consulting firm Accenture to help write the computer code, Giroux said.

The Wisconsin Elections Board cut ties with Accenture in December 2007 after being frustrated with its performance in developing a statewide voter registration database. The company was contracted to deliver a fully functional product by March 2006 but never did so, despite receiving about $9 million.

Under a legal settlement, Accenture paid the board back $4 million, waived nearly $2 million the board owed the company, and turned over its software code. Its contract was ended three years early.

Giroux said Accenture employees who specialize in writing the computer code used by PeopleSoft were working on the payroll project.

"People were very confident they have the expertise to play that narrowly defined role," he said.

Accenture spokesman Peter Soh declined to comment.

About 40 university employees are also working on the project.

Giroux said stopping the project now would waste the money spent on planning and risk the failure of the current system, which is struggling to accommodate new demands.

The university is preparing to make deep budget cuts, freeze salaries, and furlough employees to help balance the state budget. UW President Kevin Reilly has said he is worried that the "increasingly rickety" computer program might be unable to track the 16 days of furloughs employees are required to take over the next two years.

"That’s one of the things that keeps me up at night," he said.

Links:

University of Wisconsin System

Oracle’s PeopleSoft

Huron Consulting Group

Accenture

 

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Colleges get $16.5M to boost graduation rates

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and MDC Inc. have announced $16.5 million in grants to 15 community colleges and five states to expand innovative remedial education programs that experts say are key to boosting the college completion rates of low-income and minority students.

The grants are the latest step toward fulfilling the foundation’s pledge last year to double the number of college graduates who come from low-income families. (See "Gates Foundation targets college graduation.")

A recent report from Jobs for the Future found that that nearly 60 percent of students enrolling in the nation’s community colleges must take remedial classes to build their basic academic skills. For low-income and minority students, the figure topped 90 percent at some colleges. Remedial classes cost taxpayers more than $2 billion a year, the foundation said–money that is mostly wasted as few students even complete the classes, let alone continue on to graduate.

The grants announced June 22 will fund the Developmental Education Initiative, which will build upon the most promising programs developed through "Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count," a multi-year national initiative to boost graduation rates at community colleges. The remedial education models developed by the 15 community colleges receiving these grants represent some of the most promising work in the country aimed at boosting college completion rates among struggling students, the Gates Foundation said.

The lessons learned through "Achieving the Dream"–such as streamlining high school and college standards, using technology to boost basic skills, and leveraging the power of mentorships–are proving that these students can succeed when colleges develop programs that fit students’ needs, the foundation said in a press release.

More than 133,000 students reportedly take remedial education classes in the 15 community colleges selected for these grants. The number of students moving from remedial to college-level courses reportedly improved 16 to 20 percent through these selected programs.

"The pressing need to shore up weak academic skills in first-year students is one of the most significant, but least discussed, problems confronting higher education," said Carol Lincoln, director of the Developmental Education Initiative and national director of "Achieving the Dream" for MDC. "Colleges that can figure out how to quickly and efficiently boost basic skills, particularly among students of color and low-income students, will play a leading role in helping them earn the college degrees necessary for economic success in America today."

The grants also will support state-level efforts in Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia to implement new data collection systems that will help them better track the success of their remedial programs. A sixth state, North Carolina, will participate with its own funding. These states also have pledged to measure their progress against those in other states.

"Too many institutions have not developed powerful and effective ways to accelerate academic progress for students who start college underprepared," said Hilary Pennington, director of education, postsecondary success, and special initiatives at the Gates Foundation. "By working together, states, community colleges, and local school districts can design programs to accelerate high-quality learning and shorten the amount of time it takes to earn a degree."

Connecticut’s Norwalk Community College, for example, will receive $743,000 over three years to align its remedial math and English programs with college-credit courses, as well as help students develop e-portfolios to assess their work.

Ohio’s Cuyahoga Community College will receive the same amount to incorporate mentoring and tutoring both online and in person, as well as train faculty to integrate collaborative learning into their course design. And Patrick Henry Community College in Virginia will refine a diagnostic tool that identifies risk factors in remedial students and guides their placement in appropriate interventions.

Links:

Bill & Melinda Gate Foundation

Full list of grant winners

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Online high school boosts eMail

Primavera Online High School, based in Chandler, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, is the largest virtual high school in the state, teaching approximately 2,500 students each year through a 100 percent online curriculum.

Primavera’s mission is to provide a comprehensive, personalized educational experience, offering each student an innovative way to earn a high school diploma.

Primavera provides a structured yet flexible atmosphere that prepares students for real world situations. Its unique and customized curriculum utilizes a variety of self-developed and nationally-renowned content that enriches each student’s education and encompasses all learning styles.

The school is accredited by the North Central Association (NCA) and the Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation and is committed to offering the highest quality education to each and every student.

A key component of Primavera’s teaching philosophy is regular one-on-one communication between its instructors, students, and parents. Given its 100 percent online approach, messaging within Primavera’s proprietary Parent Student Portal (PSP) and eMail are the preferred methods of communication.

Primavera’s certified, highly-qualified instructors routinely communicate with students and parents via PSP messaging and eMail, informing them of important updates that cover everything from academic performance and curriculum to policy changes.

Primavera turned to Neverfail, a provider of high availability and business continuity solutions, to prevent unexpected eMail downtime that could impact the school’s ability to communicate back and forth with students and other constituents.

On any given day, Primavera receives and sends upwards of 10,000 eMails, making it a critical communication method for the school. In addition to faculty-parent-student eMail correspondence, other critical communications include those from the Arizona Department of Education, which frequently sends important updates to schools regarding funding, curriculum changes, and accreditation requirements.

Missing one of these mission-critical eMails would be disastrous given the fact that Primavera could miss a funding opportunity or a new compliance requirement. Recovering one of these eMails from the Arizona Department of Education also proves to be a daunting task.

The need for a high availability solution was precipitated by an incident in 2007 in which eMail went down for all 200 users at the school, including its 150 faculty members.

"Before installing Neverfail, our Microsoft Exchange Server crashed and eMail went down for a whole day, impacting everyone across the entire organization. We ultimately recovered, but it was a big wake-up call and we knew we needed to put a system in place that would protect mission-critical applications like this going forward," Manuel Barua, IT director for Primavera, said.

Led by Barua, the IT department tested numerous high availability solutions including clustering, but ultimately chose Neverfail for Exchange for its ease-of-use and reasonable cost. Customer service and support was another factor that Primavera considered in its decision, citing that other vendors has fallen short in this regard.

Primavera’s selection of Neverfail over Microsoft’s Standby Continuous Replication (SCR) and Cluster Continuous Replication (CCR) applications is notable, since both come built-in to Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, the version used by Primavera.

"To use either SCR or CCR, Primavera would have had to purchase and build a cluster, which we didn’t have the resources to do. On top of it, SCR needs manual intervention to recover the systems. It’s not a 24×7 solution. Failover is not automatic. We are an IT department of four people, so having a solution that was complementary to Exchange 2007, but that didn’t require significant rework and upgrades, was essential. For us, that was Neverfail," Barua said.

Primavera installed Neverfail for Exchange in late 2008 after testing it thoroughly. It met all of Barua’s and his team’s expectations and requirements.

"In addition to Neverfail’s ease-of-use, we looked for and tested it on its functionality and its ability to replicate Exchange and have it up and running on the failover system in a matter of minutes. It handled it seamlessly," Barua said.

The school has not experienced any eMail downtime since the implementation and is considering adding Neverfail for disaster recovery to complement their Neverfail high availability solution.

"For now, we rest easy knowing that we have the 24-7 availability to the eMail necessary for us to continue providing the exceptional teaching and personalized attention Primavera is known for. Our commitment to quality education is our first priority and Neverfail helps us keep that promise," said Barua.

Manuel Barua is Director of IT at Primavera Online High School, the largest virtual high school in Arizona, teaching approximately 2,500 students each year through an entirely online curriculum.

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YouTube EDU is a gateway to free educational video content

YouTube EDU contains hundreds of free video clips from each college and university’s YouTube channel, including lectures by well-known professors and scholars on a variety of subjects. Site visitors can browse through each of these channels individually, or search by the most viewed clips each month (or all time). Recently added content includes commencement speeches by President Barack Obama, talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, country singer Dolly Parton, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt; the science behind the movie "Angels and Demons," as revealed by Carnegie Mellon professor Manfred Paulini; and "Innovating on a Shoestring," from Harvard Business School. http://www.youtube.com/edu

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Electronic textbook bill signed into law

Under a bill signed by Gov. Rick Perry on June 19, Texas school districts will be able to tap state textbook money for buying laptop computers or other technology needed to access electronic teaching materials, reports the Austin American-Statesman. State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the sponsor of House Bill 4294, said the objective was to give school districts the flexibility they need to update how students get their lessons. But some members of the State Board of Education had strongly objected to the bill, because they said it diminished the board’s authority and turned it over to the Education Commissioner. They launched a vigorous campaign calling for a veto. Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, saw it differently. "Schools need access to every resource and tool available to ensure they can reach and inspire Texas students because if our children aren’t prepared to be a vital part of a 21st century Texas, we will all suffer the consequences," Hammond said in a news release. In a concession to the bill’s critics, Perry ordered that the board members have an active role in the review of digital content, including the opportunity to weigh in before the Education Commissioner approves an electronic textbook…

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