High schools to offer plan to graduate 2 years early

Dozens of public high schools in eight states will introduce a program next year allowing 10th graders who pass a battery of tests to get a diploma two years early and immediately enroll in community college, reports the New York Times. Students who pass but aspire to attend a selective college may continue with college preparatory courses in their junior and senior years, organizers of the new effort said. Students who fail the 10th-grade tests, known as board exams, can try again at the end of their 11th and 12th grades. The tests would cover not only English and math but also subjects like science and history. The new system of high school coursework with the accompanying board examinations is modeled largely on systems in high-performing nations including Denmark, England, Finland, France and Singapore…

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Two Chinese schools said to be tied to online attacks

According to the New York Times, a series of online attacks on Google and dozens of other American corporations have been traced to computers at two educational institutions in China, including one with close ties to the Chinese military, say people involved in the investigation. They also said the attacks, aimed at stealing trade secrets and computer codes and capturing e-mail of Chinese human rights activists, may have begun as early as April, months earlier than previously believed. Google announced on Jan. 12 that it and other companies had been subjected to sophisticated attacks that probably came from China. Computer security experts, including investigators from the National Security Agency, have been working since then to pinpoint the source of the attacks. Until recently, the trail had led only to servers in Taiwan…

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Education reform, one classroom at a time

Sitting on the desk of the secretary of education are dozens of ideas bold enough to finally start solving our country’s education crisis, says Melinda Gates in an editorial opinion piece for the Washington Post. They are contained in applications by 40 states and the District of Columbia for grants from the Race to the Top fund, a $4.35 billion piece of the stimulus package designed to dramatically improve student achievement. Congress established strong guidelines to guarantee that states spend Race to the Top money on audacious reforms. Many states responded with equal fortitude, submitting proposals to radically improve how they use data or to adopt college- and career-ready standards — concepts that used to be considered third rails in the world of education. Never before has this country had such an opportunity to remake the way we teach young people. One reason I am so optimistic about these developments is because, after decades of diffuse reform efforts, they all zero in on the most important ingredient of a great education: effective teachers. The key to helping students learn is making sure that every child has an effective teacher every single year…

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Apple and e-book DRM: Will they? Should they?

With Apple already firmly entrenched in the realms of digital music and video, it was only a matter of time before the company got into the future of the printed word, reports Macworld. But aside from the few hints Apple CEO Steve Jobs dropped at the iPad unveiling last month, relatively little is known about the company’s forthcoming iBookstore. Case in point: will the e-books that Apple sells contain digital rights management? And, given that Apple has made such a big push to sell music free of DRM restrictions, should the company enforce it on books? Will they?

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Center to focus on high-tech evolution

Forget fossils and DNA comparisons. A new center at Michigan State University will shift the focus of evolution from the past to the future, reports the Free Press. MSU said Wednesday that it has received a five-year, $25-million grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the work of the new Bio/computational Evolution in Action CONsortium, or BEACON. The center, which is to open in June, will bring together biologists who study natural evolutionary processes and computer scientists and engineers. Together, they will study how the evolutionary process in the biological world may be applied to the computer world — and vice versa…

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School district sued for using webcams to spy on students

Students reportedly have put tape over the webcams in their school-issued laptops in light of the allegations.

Students reportedly have put tape over the webcams in their school-issued laptops in light of the allegations.

A suburban Philadelphia school district used the webcams in school-issued laptop computers to spy on students at home, potentially catching them and their families in compromising situations, a family claims in a federal lawsuit.

Lower Merion School District officials would not comment on the accusation, but angry students already have responded by putting tape on their laptop cameras and microphones.

Sophomore Tom Halperin described students as “pretty disgusted” and noted that his class recently read 1984, the George Orwell classic that coined the term “Big Brother.”

“This is just bogus,” said Halperin, 15, of Wynnewood, as he left Harriton High School on Feb. 18 with his taped-up computer. “I just think it’s really despicable that they have the ability to just watch me all the time.”

The school district can activate the webcams without students’ knowledge or permission, the suit said. Plaintiffs Michael and Holly Robbins suspect the cameras captured students and family members as they undressed and in other embarrassing situations, according to the suit.

Such actions would amount to potentially illegal electronic wiretapping, said Witold J. Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which is not involved in the case.

“School officials cannot, any more than police, enter into the home either electronically or physically without an invitation or a warrant,” Walczak said.

The school district could not immediately confirm whether it has the ability to activate the webcams remotely, a spokesman said.

“We can categorically state that we are and have always been committed to protecting the privacy of our students,” said the spokesman, Doug Young.

The affluent district prides itself on its technology initiatives, which include giving Apple laptops to each of the approximately 2,300 students at its two high schools.

“It is no accident that we arrived ahead of the curve; in Lower Merion, our responsibility is to lead,” Superintendent Christopher W. McGinley wrote on the district web site. McGinley did not immediately return messages left Feb. 18 by the Associated Press (AP).

The Robbinses said they learned of the alleged webcam images when Lindy Matsko, an assistant principal at Harriton High School, told their son Blake that school officials thought he had engaged in improper behavior at home. The behavior was not specified in the suit.

“[Matsko] cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the school district,” the suit states. The behavior was not specified in the suit, which did not make clear whether the family had seen any photographs allegedly captured by school officials.

Matsko later confirmed to Michael Robbins that the school had the ability to activate the webcams remotely, according to the suit, which was filed Feb. 16 and seeks class-action status.

The Robbinses declined to speak with an AP reporter at their home Feb. 18. Their lawyer, Mark S. Haltzman, did not return messages.

The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the privacy of the home when it ruled in 2001 that police could not, without a warrant, use thermal imaging equipment outside a home to see if heat lamps were being used inside to grow marijuana. Technology or no, Supreme Court precedents draw “a firm line at the entrance to the house,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, quoting an earlier case.

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Judge delays Google book ruling

Google's book deal is promising, but antitrust concerns remain, says the DOJ.

Google's book deal is promising, but antitrust concerns remain, says the DOJ.

As educators and researchers await a landmark decision with enormous implications for schools and colleges, a Manhattan judge says it will take some time to decide whether Google can legally build the world’s biggest digital library.

Google’s effort to create the world’s largest library by scanning millions of books for use on the internet faces a courtroom fight as authors, foreign governments, corporate rivals, and even the U.S. Department of Justice line up to challenge it.

Judge Denny Chin heard oral arguments on Feb. 18 and said he already had read more than 500 written submissions about Google’s $125 million deal with authors and publishers, which was aimed at ending a pair of 2005 lawsuits and clearing legal obstacles to a gigantic online home for digital books. (See “Google rebuts DOJ objections to digital book deal.”)

Chin was to hear arguments from both sides before deciding whether changes made to a deal first announced in October 2008 are sufficient to withstand constitutional scrutiny. Chin said there’s “too much to digest” to rule immediately. It’s unclear when he’ll rule.

The publishing industry sued Google after it announced plans to build the giant online library in December 2004. Since then, the Mountain View, Calif., company has scanned more than 12 million books. Google says the judge holds the key to “the greatest library in history.”

The Justice Department says the effort holds “vast promise” but still raises antitrust issues, adding that Google and the plaintiffs in the fall made substantial improvements to the original settlement, but that “substantial issues remain.”

It said the new deal raised antitrust concerns and suffered from the same core issue as the original agreement by establishing forward-looking business arrangements that “confer significant and possibly anticompetitive advantages on a single entity—Google.”

In court papers submitted last week, Google defended its deal with authors by saying its digital library lives up to copyright law’s purpose of creating and distributing expressive works.

“No one seriously disputes that approval of the settlement will open the virtual doors to the greatest library in history, without costing authors a dime they now receive or are likely to receive if the settlement is not approved,” said Google.

Still, the Department of Justice said it believes an approvable settlement might be possible, perhaps by requiring rights holders to opt in to the settlement.

France and Germany, which oppose the settlement, noted they support a European book-scanning project, Europeana, because it is in compliance with their laws and requires permission from copyright holders before books are scanned.

Obtaining permission beforehand is what Amazon.com Inc. said it did when it engaged in a similar book-scanning project. Amazon’s lawyers oppose the settlement and have asked to address the court. Other Google rivals, including Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc., also oppose the settlement.

Among authors opposing the deal are folk singer Arlo Guthrie and writer Catherine Ryan Hyde, whose novel Pay it Forward was adapted and released as a movie.

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Shooting cripples Ala. university department

The Associated Press reports that a professor who police say was injured by a bullet fired by his colleague remains in a neuro-intensive care unit, but microbiologist Joseph Leahy is making progress and his fight to recover mirrors the challenge facing the biology department that saw three of its members snatched away in one afternoon. A conference room at the University of Alabama-Huntsville was the scene of a mass shooting six days ago that claimed the lives of the department head and two other professors. Leahy, another professor and a staff member were wounded when, authorities allege, Amy Bishop pulled a pistol at a faculty meeting and started shooting her colleagues. With three professors dead, two wounded and one charged with murder, “our department has pretty much been cut in half,” said Leland Cseke, a faculty member. “It’s devastating…”

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Amazon launches free Kindle app for Blackberry

Amazon.com said Feb. 18 it is launching a new free Kindle application that will give customers access to over 420,000 books on a range of BlackBerry devices, Reuters reports. Called “Kindle for Blackberry”, the free application allows customers using BlackBerry devices on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and other U.S. carriers easy wireless access to Kindle books, most for $9.99 or less. “Since the launch of our popular Kindle for iPhone app last year, customers have been asking us to bring a similar experience to the BlackBerry,” said Ian Freed, Vice President, Amazon Kindle…

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Google donates $2 million to support Wikipedia

Google Inc., the internet’s most profitable company, is giving $2 million to support Wikipedia, a volunteer-driven reference tool that has emerged as one of the web’s most-read sites, reports the Associated Press. The donation announced matches the largest grant made so far to Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit group that oversees the 7-year-old Wikipedia. Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar also donated $2 million to Wikimedia six months ago through one of his investment arms. The latest largesse has catapulted Wikimedia beyond its $10.6 million revenue target for its fiscal year ending in June. That goal had looked ambitious, given that it represented an increase of more than 20 percent from $8.7 million a year earlier. But the worst recession since World War II evidently didn’t dampen support for the internet’s most popular encyclopedia, which has more than 14 million entries written and edited by some 100,000 unpaid contributors in about 270 languages. Wikimedia, which gets most of its revenue from donations, has collected contributions from more than 240,000 individuals so far this fiscal year, mostly in small sums. The outpouring has allowed Wikipedia to expand while keeping its web site commercial free, spokesman Jay Walsh said. “We intend to keep it that way, too…”

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