Poll finds sexting common among youth

Sexting — the practice of sharing sexually explicit photos, videos, or chat by cell phone or on the web — is fairly commonplace among young people, new research suggests, despite sometimes grim consequences for those who do it.

More than a quarter of young people have been involved in sexting in some form, an Associated Press-MTV poll found.

That includes Sammy, a 16-year-old from the San Francisco Bay Area who asked that his last name not be used.

Sammy said he had shared naked pictures of himself with girlfriends. He also shared naked pictures of someone else that a friend had sent him.

What he didn’t realize at the time was that young people across the country–in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania–have faced charges, in some cases felony charges, for sending nude pictures.

"That’s why I probably wouldn’t do it again," Sammy said. Yet, "I just don’t see it as that big of a problem, personally."

That was the view of nearly half of those surveyed who have been involved in sexting. The other half said it’s a serious problem–and did it anyway. Knowing there might be consequences hasn’t stopped them.

"There’s definitely the invincibility factor that young people feel," said Kathleen Bogle, a sociology professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia and author of the book Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus.

"That’s part of the reason why they have a high rate of car accidents and things like that, is they think, ‘Oh, well, that will never happen to me,’" Bogle said.

Research shows teenage brains are not quite mature enough to make good decisions consistently. By the mid-teens, the brain’s reward centers, the parts involved in emotional arousal, are well-developed, making teens more vulnerable to peer pressure.

But it is not until the early 20s that the brain’s frontal cortex, where reasoning connects with emotion, enabling people to weigh consequences, has finished forming.

Beyond feeling invincible, young people also have a much different view of sexual photos that might be posted online, Bogle said. They don’t think about the idea that those photos might wind up in the hands of potential employers or college admissions officers, she said.

"Sometimes they think of it as a joke; they have a laugh about it," Bogle said. "In some cases, it’s seen as flirtation. They’re thinking of it as something far less serious and aren’t thinking of it as consequences down the road or who can get hold of this information. They’re also not thinking about worst-case scenarios that parents might worry about."

Sexting doesn’t stop with teenagers. Young adults are even more likely to have sexted; one-third of them said they had been involved in sexting, compared with about one-quarter of teenagers.

Thelma, a 25-year-old from Natchitoches, La., who didn’t want her last name used, said she’s been asked more than once to send naked pictures of herself to a man.

"It’s just when you’re talking to a guy who’s interested in you, and you might have a sexual relationship, so they just want to see you naked," she said, adding that she never complied with those requests.

"But with my current boyfriend, I did it on my own; he didn’t ask me," she said, adding that she was confident he would keep the image to himself.

Those who sent nude pictures of themselves mostly said they went to a boyfriend, girlfriend, or romantic interest.

But 14 percent said they suspect the pictures were shared without permission, and they might be right: Seventeen percent of those who received naked pictures said they passed them along to someone else, often to more than just one person.

Boys were a little more likely than girls to say they received naked pictures or video of someone that had been passed around without the person’s consent. Common reasons were that they thought other people would want to see, that they were showing off, and that they were bored.

Girls were a little more likely to send pictures of themselves. Yet boys were more likely to say that sexting is "hot," while most girls called it "slutty."

Altogether, 10 percent said they had sent naked pictures of themselves on their cell phone or online.

Criminal charges aren’t the worst consequences. In at least two cases, sexting has been linked to suicide. Last year in Cincinnati, 18-year-old Jessica Logan hanged herself after weeks of ridicule at school; she had sent a nude cell-phone picture to her boyfriend, and after they broke up, he forwarded the picture to other girls.

And three months ago, 13-year-old Hope Witsell hanged herself, after relentless taunting at her school near Tampa, Fla. She had sent a nude photo of herself to a boy she liked, and another girl used his phone to send the picture to other students who forwarded it along. The St. Petersburg Times first reported on Hope’s death this week.

Other teenage suicides have been linked to online bullying, also a subject of the AP-MTV poll. Half of all young people said they have been targets of digital bullying.

That can mean someone wrote something about them on the internet that was mean or a lie, or someone shared an eMail or instant message that was supposed to be private. Less often, it can be more serious, such as taking pictures or video of someone in a sexual situation and sharing it with others.

The AP-MTV poll was conducted Sept. 11-22 and involved online interviews with 1,247 teenagers and adults ages 14-24. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

The poll is part of an MTV campaign, "A Thin Line," aiming to stop the spread of digital abuse.

The survey was conducted by Knowledge Networks, which initially contacted people using traditional telephone and mail polling methods and followed with online interviews. People chosen for the study who had no internet access were given it for free.

Link:

"A Thin Line" campaign

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FTC: Violent content still marketed to kids

The video game industry is doing a better job at keeping young kids away from violent and other inappropriate content than the music and movie businesses, according to a new report by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). But all three industries could improve their self-regulation, the report said, especially when it comes to new technologies such as mobile games and viral online marketing.

The report, which reviews the marketing of violent entertainment to children, also found that movie studios intentionally market PG-13 movies to kids under 13.

Unrated DVDs pose another challenge, because stores often sell such versions of films that were rated R or PG-13 in theaters. Nearly six out of 10 parents surveyed didn’t know that unrated DVDs can contain additional adult or explicit content that wasn’t in the film’s original cut.

This was the FTC’s seventh such report to Congress since 2000, and each found that the movie and game industries made progress in restricting the marketing of products intended for grown-ups to children. The music industry, however, "had not significantly changed its marketing practices since the Commission’s initial report," the FTC said.

The report did find that fewer kids are able to skirt age restrictions than just a few years ago. To see if retailers and movie theaters are enforcing age limits, the commission sent 13- to 16-year-old "mystery shoppers" to see movies and buy DVDs, video games, or music not intended for their age group.

On average, 20 percent of them were able to buy video games rated M (for Mature) when unaccompanied by a parent. This is down from 42 percent in 2006, the latest available figure.

In contrast, 72 percent of the kids were able to buy music CDs with explicit content warnings, compared with 76 percent in 2006. More than half of them were sold R-rated movie DVDs, down from 71 percent three years ago.

Movie theaters are also checking IDs more: Only 28 percent of the teens could buy tickets for R-rated movies, down from 39 percent in 2006.

While the average denial rate for M-rated video games was 80 percent overall, the report found that retailer Toys ‘R’ Us lags in enforcement, with only a 56-percent denial rate to the underage mystery shoppers. The report also noted that "use of gift cards to buy games online … represents one potential gap in enforcement against underage purchase."

The proliferation of gaming applications available for mobile devices, coupled with the fact that most wireless carriers and content providers do not rate these applications with the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) system, is also cause for concern, the report said.

"Age-based parental controls on what games can be downloaded to mobile devices [could] offer another tool for restricting children’s access to mature content," it recommended.

Link:

"Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children" (PDF)

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Search for extraterrestrial life costs school IT chief his job

A former Arizona school district employee is accused of using school computers in an experiment to find intelligent life from outer space, costing the worker his job and the district more than $1 million, reports the Associated Press. Schools officials say Brad Niesluchowski, who was Higley Unified School District’s information technology director, downloaded free software onto district computers in 2000. The program, known as SETI(at)home, uses internet-connected computers worldwide to analyze radio telescope data in an experiment to find extraterrestrial intelligence. But Superintendent Denise Birdwell told the East Valley Tribune that the program also bogged down the district’s computer network and interfered with technology use in classrooms. Birdwell said it will take more than $1 million to fix the problem, including removal of the SETI software. She says police are conducting a broader investigation…

Click here for the full story

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‘Sexting’ bullying cited in teen’s suicide

Middle school student Hope Witsell was just beginning the journey from child to teen. But one impetuous move robbed Hope of her childhood, and eventually, her life, MSNBC reports. The 13-year-old Florida girl sent a topless photo of herself to a boy in hope of gaining his attention. Instead, she got the attention of her school, as well as the high school nearby. The incessant bullying by classmates that followed when the photo spread put an emotional weight upon Hope that she ultimately could not bear, and she hanged herself in her bedroom 11 weeks ago. Her death is only the second known case of a suicide linked to bullying after "sexting"–the practice of transmitting sexual messages or images electronically. In March, 18-year-old Jesse Logan killed herself in the face of a barrage of taunts when an ex-boyfriend forwarded explicit photos of her following their split. Hope Witsell’s grieving mother, Donna Witsell, is now coming forward to offer a cautionary story in hope of sparing others the loss she endures…

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Future cyber sleuths get an early start

Thirty-seven students at the Delaware County Technical School in Aston, Pa., are enrolled in a new network systems program that offers a concentration in the exploding field of computer forensics, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. Part CSI, part information technology, the curriculum prepares students for the rapidly growing field of digital forensics–gathering, preserving, and investigating evidence stored on any digital device. "It is a hot topic," said Dave Tatum, vocational network instructor at the Aston campus. Students there acquire a foundation in network administration and technology through lectures, demonstrations, and hands-on classes. During the two-year program, they will learn to build a small computer network from the ground up. They also will learn about the new laws governing electronic discovery. Half their school day is spent at the high school in their home districts, the other half at the Aston campus. "If these kids stick with it, they will have a hell of a career," said Nancy White of the Computer Forensics Analysis and Training Center in Sharon Hill, Pa., who teamed up with the Aston school to help develop the program’s curriculum. "It is a long process, but it is a great and exciting new field within information technology." With criminals finding more ways to exploit technology, computer forensics touches every crime the FBI handles, said J.P. McDonald, director of the FBI’s Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory in Radnor…

Click here for the full story

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Cable industry floats broadband plan for students

As the Federal Communications Commission works to complete a national broadband plan by mid-February, the cable industry has proposed an innovative plan of its own to help close the digital divide for low-income students.

The plan, called Adoption Plus (A+), is a nationwide public-private partnership that would combine digital media literacy training with discounted broadband service and computers for eligible middle school students. The two-year pilot program would reach up to 3.5 million middle school children who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, from approximately 1.8 million low-income households that currently do not receive broadband services.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) proposed the A+ program in filings with the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) and the FCC earlier this week. The proposal is the result of discussions with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and Blair Levin, who heads the agency’s broadband initiative, among other officials.

"I commend NCTA and [its] industry partners for their leadership in launching Adoption Plus, a program that will bring the benefits of broadband to millions of middle school-aged children in low-income households across the country," Genochowski said in a statement.

"The internet is increasingly essential to academic success. With 65 percent of teens going online to complete homework assignments, students [who] don’t have broadband access will fall behind those [who] do. …  The cable industry’s considerable investment in this program represents an important step in addressing the many broadband adoption challenges we face."

NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow said the plan has two goals: "to drive sustainable adoption in populations that currently do not benefit from broadband, and to … positively affect educational performance among participating students."

The A+ program would promote broadband adoption by recognizing that the many barriers to broadband adoption–including relevance, digital literacy, computer ownership, and affordability–require a comprehensive solution that goes beyond simply delivering high-speed internet service.

While the proposal is open to other broadband service providers who want to participate, it includes a commitment by the nation’s top cable broadband providers that they will provide broadband service and a cable modem to eligible households at a 50-percent discount for two years, as well as free installation of broadband service. The value of the cable industry’s offer could reach $572 million over the two years of the program, NCTA said.

School districts or state education agencies would be responsible for providing federally funded digital media literacy training to eligible students, including lessons in online safety and responsible internet use. Such training would have to meet minimum standards established by the federal government, according to the plan.

NCTA has proposed earmarking $100 million in broadband stimulus funding to pay for this training and related costs to schools. School districts would apply for grants from NTIA, which would administer the funding and ensure that eligible students receive the necessary instruction. The plan suggests that schools be required to match up to 20 percent of any grants they receive with their own funds.

Once an eligible student is enrolled in an A+ digital media literacy program, he or she would be eligible to purchase a single discounted computer. Participating computer manufacturers would be expected to provide their own contribution to offset the cost of a machine. However, the proposal also suggests that federal funds be allocated to provide further discounts off the price of computers.

The proposal doesn’t indicate whether it has the support of the computer industry, but NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz said the organization is in talks with several computer manufacturers about participating.

"We just announced this initiative and are hoping [it] will spur a larger discussion with computer manufacturers who will want to participate," Dietz said.

Participating broadband providers would offer entry-level broadband service (with a minimum download speed of 1 megabit per second) to the families of eligible students at a 50-percent discount for two years. Families also would get a modem at a 50-percent discount, whether purchased or rented; free installation of broadband service; and parental control software and other online safety tools. The plan does not assume any federal subsidy for providing these discounted services.

The proposal contains three eligibility criteria: Participants must be middle school students (grades 6-8 or 7-9, depending on the particular school district); they must be eligible for free or reduced-price lunches under the National School Lunch Program; and their household must not already receive broadband service.

NCTA chose these criteria to target a population of students for whom the program can have a significant impact. Low-income households have dramatically lower broadband adoption rates than the general population, the group explained, and middle school students–with appropriate guidance and digital media literacy training–are developmentally capable of safely and effectively taking advantage of the benefits of broadband.

Because this would be a pilot program, NCTA proposes that the federal government establish a means of assessing its impact on both broadband adoption rates and educational outcomes.

Reaction to the plan among education groups has been largely positive so far, although some expressed concern about what will happen when the pilot program ends.

"We believe this proposal represents a good first step by cable companies to improve broadband adoption, but it only gets us part of the way there," said Keith Krueger, chief executive of the Consortium for School Networking. "We urge other telecommunications providers to follow cable’s lead in discounting broadband access for low-income middle school students. Additionally, we encourage industry and government to work together to ensure that those students gain access to home technology, at low or no cost, so that they may capitalize on the A+ initiative’s promise."

Doug Levin, a former senior executive for Cable in the Classroom who now heads the State Educational Technology Directors Association, agreed the program marks a good first start, calling it "incredibly significant."

"It’s also good because it … recognizes [that] education needs structure, and that’s where the digital literacy comes into play," Levin said in an interview with eSchool News. "It’s important to have not only the tool, but the skills and school involvement."

But for the proposal to be truly successful, "there are a few issues that need tightening," Levin added. "For example, this is designed to be geared for the stimulus rubric (a two-year program), but the nationwide need for broadband access, especially for students, is long-term. Also, what should the role be for other telecommunication providers?"

Levin said he was pleased to see the proposal asks for federal studies to provide accountability, "because that’s crucial." But to get an accurate reading of its effectiveness, "the program needs more time," he said. "If these households and these students don’t have internet access, it might take some time for full-scale and skillful adoption."

A more detailed description of the A+ proposal is available on NCTA’s web site. The participating cable providers are Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Charter, Cablevision, Bright House, Mediacom, Suddenlink, Insight Communications, Bresnan Communications, Midcontinent Communications, GCI, U.S. Cable, Bend Broadband, Eagle Communications, and Sjoberg’s Cable.

Links:

NCTA’s Adoption Plus program

Federal Communications Commission

National Telecommunications & Information Administration

Consortium for School Networking

Cable in the Classroom

State Educational Technology Directors Association

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Online Learning resource center. Thousands of K-12 schools across the nation are turning to online-learning providers for help with credit recovery, enrichment opportunities for gifted students, and for providing core curriculum classes in areas where there isn’t enough demand to justify keeping a teacher on staff. Go to: Online Learning

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Comcast, NBC deal to test net neutrality

Analysts say Comcast Corp. likely will have to accept substantial conditions if the cable TV provider wants to win regulatory approval for control of NBC Universal’s broadcast network, cable channels, and movie studios in a $13.75 billion mega-deal that is sure to test "net neutrality," the idea that broadband providers should not be able to discriminate against certain types of internet traffic flowing over their lines.

Although federal regulators probably won’t block a deal outright on anticompetitive grounds, they could prohibit Comcast, for instance, from denying rival subscription-TV services access to NBC channels and other popular programming. And they could prohibit the cable giant from blocking or delaying the streaming of content from other networks over its broadband pipeline.

Under a deal expected to be announced Dec. 3, Comcast would control the Peacock network and about two dozen cable channels such as Bravo, CNBC, The Weather Channel, and SyFy, along with the cable lines to roughly a quarter of all U.S. households that pay for TV.

The regulatory review remains the biggest question mark now that all the corporate pieces appear to be in place. Vivendi SA is expected to sell General Electric Co. the portion of NBC Universal it doesn’t already own. GE, in turn, would sell a 51 percent stake in the entire unit to Comcast for $13.75 billion.

A review by the Federal Communications Commission and either the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission could take a year or longer.

The deal is bound to face tougher scrutiny than past ones, given a Democratic administration that has vowed to encourage diversity in media ownership and ramp up antitrust oversight overall.

"This is a new administration that has promised to be a tough cop on the beat," said Corie Wright, policy counsel for Free Press, a public-interest group that opposes the deal. "Any conditions it exacts should and will be painful, because this would be a tremendous consolidation of market power."

Regulators probably won’t stop the deal entirely because the two companies are in two different businesses with little overlap, Concept Capital analyst Paul Gallant said.

But federal reviewers will have to sort out the implications of allowing a company that already provides cable and internet connections to so many Americans–including several schools–to take control of a vast media empire, too.

(Comcast is a major player in a new plan to provide discounted broadband service to the families of low-income middle school students in an effort to close the digital divide; you can read that story here.)

NBC Universal owns the NBC and Telemundo broadcast networks; 26 local TV stations; an array of popular cable channels including CNBC, Bravo, and The Weather Channel; the Universal Pictures movie studio and theme parks; and a stake in Hulu, which distributes free television programming online.

Comcast, meanwhile, has 23.8 million cable TV customers, 15.7 million high-speed internet subscribers, and 7.4 million customers for its phone service. The company also owns some cable channels already, including E! Entertainment and the Golf Channel, and a controlling interest in the Philadelphia 76ers and Flyers.

The biggest concern facing regulators centers on what happens when one company owns both distribution platforms and content, said Stifel Nicolaus analyst Rebecca Arbogast.

Before approving America Online Inc.’s purchase of Time Warner Inc. in 2001, regulators required Time Warner to offer online services other than just AOL on its high-speed cable internet network.

In clearing News Corp.’s 2003 acquisition of satellite provider DirecTV, regulators prohibited the combined company from discriminating against competing subscription TV services and channels it didn’t own.

A key challenge in these types of deals, Arbogast explained, is ensuring that rivals in the subscription TV and broadband markets can still get access to popular programming owned by the merged company.

In this case, government regulators might prohibit Comcast from denying access to NBC channels and sports programming to DirecTV, Echostar Corp.’s Dish Network, Verizon Communications Inc.’s FiOS, and other competitors. Regulators also could mandate binding arbitration in disputes over access fees and terms.

Regulators also might consider closing the so-called "terrestrial loophole" for Comcast. Federal rules require cable TV operators that own programming to grant competitors access to that programming if it is delivered over satellite. But Comcast and other cable companies have managed to avoid those obligations with popular sports programs by sending this content over landlines instead.

Dish Chief Executive Charles Ergen, for one, has complained that Dish has been unable to carry Philadelphia sports games shown on Comcast’s regional sports network. A merger condition, however, could end such practices.

Another key challenge lies in ensuring that the subscription TV service–in this case, Comcast’s cable system–can’t drop smaller, independent channels from its lineup. This could be handled by prohibiting Comcast from discriminating against cable channels that it doesn’t own.

Regulators are certain to take a particularly hard look at markets where Comcast already owns the local cable system and now would acquire a local NBC or Telemundo broadcast station. Those include parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Regulators might even require Comcast to divest the local stations out of fear that the combined company would be too powerful in negotiations over programming and advertising rates.

While the federal review of News Corp.’s acquisition of DirecTV does offer some guidance for regulators this time around, the current deal does raise new issues, too, Arbogast noted. That’s because Comcast is also a major broadband provider.

Public-interest groups are especially concerned that a combined company could try to use its control over high-speed internet connections to favor its own media content on the web.

This would violate proposed "network neutrality" rules the Federal Communications Commission is considering to require broadband providers to give equal treatment to internet traffic. Last year, the FCC ordered Comcast to stop blocking subscribers from using an online file-sharing service called BitTorrent in a ruling Comcast is challenging in court.

Public-interest groups are also concerned that Comcast could begin charging for Hulu and denying other online video sites access to its media content, because internet video might represent a threat to its core cable TV operations.

"The question is: Can Comcast slow the rise of net video as a competitor to its cable TV business?" Gallant said.

Indeed, Comcast and Time Warner Inc. are preparing to launch a new service that will make cable programming from about two dozen channels available online. Although Comcast will not charge an additional fee for the service, it will be available only to cable subscribers.

While all of these issues will be on the table, any conditions that the government ultimately imposes will be shaped by the conversations with competing channels, video providers, public-interest groups, and other affected parties.

Still, "there is little doubt that there would have to be significant concessions for this to pass regulatory muster," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, head of the public-interest group Media Access Project. "It will be a long list before we’re done."

Links:

Comcast Corp.

NBC Universal

Federal Communications Commission

Justice Department

Federal Trade Commission

Free Press

Media Access Project

 

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Five key trends in assistive technology

Once considered a highly specialized field, assistive technology (AT) now increasingly can be found in applications and devices sold to the general public, says a new report that highlights several key trends in AT development.

The Nation Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) presented the report during its annual conference last month. The issue brief, titled “Unleashing the Power of Innovation for Assistive Technology,” comes at a time of great opportunity for both schools and AT providers, the organization says.

“The confluence of federal stimulus money and guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs … to consider investing in ‘state-of-the-art assistive technology and training’ affords the field a rare opportunity to define and shape what state-of-the-art assistive technology can be,” says the brief.

With that goal in mind, NCTI solicited the opinions of more than 65 people from academia, the education-technology industry, professional associations, and all levels of government.

Based on this feedback and a review of existing literature, NCTI concluded that “applications originally designed for the disabled are increasingly recognized as presenting solutions for the wider consumer market.” As a result, the group said, AT functionality now often is built into mainstream consumer devices.

Here are the five most significant trends in AT development, according to NCTI:

1. Convergence. NCTI defines this as the consolidation of various technological systems into “a single platform to perform multiple tasks”–such as the iPhone and other smart phones or mobile devices.

These devices have the ability to run multiple applications that can support and accompany students with disabilities throughout their daily activities.

For example, the brief mentions that students in Taiwan are engaging in an after-school program with smart phones and the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) network. With this technology, students and teachers are able to interact to an extent that was not possible before.

In the United States, an iPhone application called iSigns can facilitate communication between deaf students and others who do not sign. Other iPhone apps for students with disabilities include Picture Scheduler, which helps students with autism create and organize personal tasks, and iPrompts, which provides visual prompting tools to help students understand upcoming events and make choices.

Other examples of convergent technologies include e-Book reader devices and online sites that cater to handheld technologies, such as Bookshare.org, which is an online library of digital books underwritten by the Education Department for students with qualifying print disabilities.

2. Customizability and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). According to the brief, customizable AT is designed so that it “can be configured in different ways to meet the needs of individual users.”

UDL simply means customizing software to meet the needs of a diverse group of learners. For example, a UDL curriculum should offer multiple means of representation (that is, it should give learners various ways of acquiring information), multiple means of action and expression (it should give students several alternatives for demonstrating what they know), and multiple means of engagement (it should motivate and challenge different learners appropriately).

While much educational software has included customizability in recent years, NCTI urges developers to include elements of UDL to help all learners succeed.

Gaming, another technology that recently has gained momentum in education, is also an area that needs work, says the brief. “Although game developers have not traditionally focused on accessibility and customizability, there is a growing movement to ensure that developers keep these features in mind as they design games,” it says.

For instance, some organizations, such as Universally Accessible Games and the International Game Developers Association (IDGA) Game Accessibility Special Interest Group, have supported designing games with customizable features that will make them universally accessible.

Some UDL features for gaming include the captioning of dialog, text-to-speech capabilities for on-screen text dialog and instructions, the ability to magnify areas of the screen, the ability to use an adapted controller in place of the standard one, and customizable colors for color-blindness.

Other UDL recommendations include offering variations in the degree of difficulty and additional supports for users, such as guides and features that highlight important points or reward effective strategies.

3. Research- or evidence-based design. With technology changing so rapidly, researchers are beginning to realize that studies of AT’s effectiveness should focus on features, usage, and the user population, rather than individual products, NCTI says.

“As features beneficial to users with and without disabilities become commonplace on everyday electronics, AT researchers have found that to stay current, they need to recognize that state-of-the-art research and evidence may come from other disciplines or from consumer testing and demands,” the brief notes.

Even without formal studies or market research, it says, AT specialists and developers can determine utility, interest, and efficacy simply by reading reviews, determining the number of downloads, and talking or chatting online with users.

Currently, research that provides information on which features are most effective for which populations, under which conditions, and for which tasks is still in the early stages, especially for new technologies, the report says.

Yet initial research in the area of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices has shown that AAC systems with static visual-graphic systems might be more effective for users with autism, whereas other users might benefit more from speech-generating devices.

Also, “the advent of new technologies and multimodal communication abilities in both mainstream commercial communication devices and AAC devices has led to further confirmation of research that multimodal approaches (voice output devices, gesture, sign, facial expression, picture symbols, and computer-based technologies) are most effective in meeting a wide variety of communication needs in a variety of environments,” the brief says.

4. Portability. To help promote independence, portability is critical, says the report. While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to educate students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, portable technologies are helping to redefine the mandate of “least restrictive environment” and are boosting independence.

One example of portable AT is a laptop computer, especially a netbook. Many of today’s laptops have a host of accessibility features, and netbooks allow for an even smaller, lighter solution.

Taking the idea of portability one step further, says the brief, is a growing movement toward high-quality, fully portable, open-source AT. Under this model, students can carry AT software on their jump drive and use it whenever appropriate.

CLiCk, Speak is one example of software that can be downloaded onto a jump drive and is described as “the only free, professional-grade screen magnifier that works across remote desktop software.”

5. Interoperability. According to the brief, interoperability can mean many things for AT used in school, home, and community settings. It can refer to a device that can be used on multiple computer platforms, such as Windows or Mac OS X; or it can mean “the ability of two or more systems or components to exchange information and to use the information that has been exchanged.”

NCTI believes that as the technology industry moves toward software as a service (SaaS) and cloud computing, the potential is growing for AT software applications that are not installed on a particular machine, but rather are accessed through the internet from any machine.

“As ubiquitous internet access becomes a reality in schools, this trend may empower users of specific software licenses to use that software on whatever machine they are near, thus eliminating the need for resource rooms or specialized AT labs,” says the brief.

Another example of interoperability is when programs can share and compile data. One example is TeachTown, a software program that provides autism services and coordinates data and communication among parents, teachers, and clinicians. Sharing data facilitates communication, boosts the effectiveness of the clinical intervention, and eliminates the need for teachers or clinicians to transfer data manually into the school’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) records, says the brief.

According to NCTI, these five trends are critical to defining current state-of-the-art AT; however, technology developers must remember that “keeping it simple” is really the key to successful AT tools.

“NCTI hears this plea from … parents and caregivers as well. Too often, the sophistication of the features or interface of new devices precludes easy use by direct consumers or their parents, teachers, and friends. With more students being served in general-education classrooms of up to 30 students, devices need to offer as little complexity and facilitate as much independence for the user as possible,” the brief says.

“It’s not just about adding new features to the stuff we already have,” explained Tracy Gray, director of NCTI. “We must ask the question: What do we need to solve, and how can we do that?”

The brief also underscores the importance of state-of-the-art AT training for educators, and it lists possible uses for IDEA-based stimulus funding for schools.

Links:

“Unleashing the Power of Innovation for Assistive Technology” (PDF)

National Center for Technology Innovation

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Three boys detained for Facebook-inspired attacks

Three California boys were booked on suspicion of bullying or kicking red-haired students at a middle school when a Facebook prank inspired by an episode of the television show "South Park" got out of hand, reports the Associated Press. A 13-year-old boy was detained last week for investigation of threatening to inflict injury by means of electronic communication–essentially, cyber bullying–and two 12-year-olds were booked for battery on school property, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s spokesman said. The three suspects could face misdemeanor charges, but it was unclear when the case might be submitted for possible prosecution. Four girls and three boys reported that schoolmates shoved or kicked them on Nov. 20 at A.E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas, an affluent suburb of Los Angeles. Investigators said the attacks were inspired by a 2005 episode of "South Park" that satirized racial prejudice by having the character Cartman incite a hate campaign against freckled, red-haired "ginger kids." (The word "ginger" is an anagram for another common racially charged epithet.) The episode apparently inspired the 13-year-old to send his friends a Facebook message declaring "Kick a Ginger Day," authorities said. Most students ignored or deplored the message, and some sent "Protect a Ginger Day" counter-messages, but a dozen or so students apparently acted on the joke…

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Broadband teaching gets boost in Idaho schools

The Idaho Statesman reports that student-teacher interactions via video conferencing over a dedicated broadband network soon could become commonplace in Idaho, thanks to the new Idaho Education Network. The network is charged with making sure the state’s 200 high schools have the technological capability to send or receive classes from other high schools or colleges by 2012. Educators see the network as a way to expand course offerings in small rural schools that might not have some classes that large schools can offer–but the network can help urban schools, too. The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which announced a $20 million initiative last week to improve Idaho’s sagging college attendance and completion rates, is so impressed with the opportunities afforded by the network that it pledged $6 million to help carry its work to schools and better prepare high school students for college. "It levels the playing field," said Jamie MacMillan, the foundation’s executive director. Created by the state Legislature in the 2009 session, the network launched in July. It was financed with $3 million in federal economic stimulus money, which is expected to end this year, and $7 million in e-Rate dollars. The Albertson money and continuing e-Rate dollars could keep the network funded at $10 million a year for two additional fiscal years–enough time to build and operate the system, network officials say…

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