Nine charged with bullying Mass. teen who killed self

Nine teens have been charged in the “unrelenting” bullying of a teenage girl from Ireland who killed herself after being raped and enduring months of torment by classmates in person and online, reports the Associated Press. Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, Mass., was stalked and harassed nearly constantly from September until she killed herself Jan. 14. The freshman had recently moved to western Massachusetts from Ireland. Six teens—four girls and two boys—face charges including statutory rape, assault, violation of civil rights resulting in injury, criminal harassment, disturbance of a school assembly, and stalking. Three younger girls face delinquency charges. Scheibel said school officials knew about the bullying, but none will face criminal charges. Some students accused of participating in the bullying have been disciplined by the school and will not be returning to classes. The Massachusetts Legislature cited Prince’s death and the apparent suicide of 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover of Springfield last year when members passed anti-bullying legislation earlier this month…

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College dean adds human touch to distance education

Douglas E. Hersh, dean of educational programs and technology at Santa Barbara City College, believes video technology might hold the key to solving an old problem that has plagued distance education since its beginnings, USA Today reports: the retention gap. Hersh believes that one major reason students are more likely to drop out of online programs than traditional ones is the lack of human touch in distance-ed programs. His solution is to incorporate more video into the course-delivery mechanism. Most professors who teach online already incorporate short video and audio clips into their courses, according to a 2009 survey by the Campus Computing Project. But it is rarer, Hersh says, for professors to use video of themselves to teach or interact with their online students—largely because the purveyors of major learning-management systems do not orient their platforms to feature that method of delivery. That’s why Hersh convinced Santa Barbara in 2008 to abandon Blackboard in favor of Moodle’s open-source platform, which he used to build the “Human Presence Learning Environment.” The interface is designed so professors can deliver lessons and messages using videos recorded with a webcam. It also shows students who among their instructors or classmates are logged into Skype, the video-chat service, in case they want to have a live, face-to-face conversation. Hersh says he is talking with other California community colleges to adopt the platform and will gladly give it away to any other institutions that want to use it…

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‘Math wars’ over national standards might erupt again in California

The contentious debate over how California students should learn math is ready to erupt again, reports the San Jose Mercury News. As the United States prepares for the first time to adopt nationwide K-12 “common core” standards, mathematicians and educators are split. Some hail the proposals as a groundbreaking advancement, because students will develop a more solid footing in math before rushing to the next level; others fear the plan would propel California backward. Each side warns that America’s future as a global science and technology powerhouse is at stake. A national committee representing 48 states and the District of Columbia has drafted the common standards for what students should learn in English and math. California can choose not to adopt the federal standards but would miss out on competing for hundreds of millions in federal stimulus dollars. While the proposed English curriculum hasn’t provoked an outcry, the math debate echoes California’s “math wars” that raged in the 1990s and led to repeals of reforms that favored problem-solving, applications, and group work over traditional teaching. Under the new proposed standards, primary students would spend more time going in depth on concepts before learning new skills. That means California students would learn multiplication in fourth grade rather than third. But some critics think the new standards set the bar too low for college readiness. Rather than following in step with other states, these critics say, California should be looking to keep up with India, Singapore, and Europe…

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Wisconsin schools to share $80 million Microsoft settlement

As a result of a class-action lawsuit settlement with Microsoft Corp., vouchers worth about $80 million are in the mail to districts across Wisconsin to help 800 low-income schools secure new technology, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Department of Public Instruction said low-income schools may begin using their vouchers immediately to reimburse for certain hardware and software purchases made since last June, or use the vouchers to fund new technology purchases. The influx of funds is substantial, but district technology directors say the money cannot plug the holes left by wider budget shortfalls. The pool of money available is part of the $224 million settlement Wisconsin reached with Microsoft in 2006, in a case where plaintiffs claimed Microsoft had stifled competition and broken state antitrust laws by overcharging consumers for software and computers. Microsoft denied any wrongdoing, but reached similar class-action settlements with a number of other states. After the deadline passed for consumers to submit claims for vouchers from their Microsoft purchases, the unclaimed funds were allocated to low-income schools to help them improve students’ access to technology…

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Warner Bros. recruiting students to spy on illegal file sharers

Warner Bros. Entertainment UK is providing internships to students in the United Kingdom with a computer or IT-related related degree to help the company reduce online piracy—in part by spying on their fellow students, ZDNet reports. The internships pay 17,500 pounds a year (around $26,000), and a notice of the opportunity was posted at the University of Manchester. Warner Bros. says it will give participating students the tools, knowledge, and training to search the internet for links, posts, torrents, and information that will help the company issue cease-and-desist notices and other legal means to remove pirated content. The job description says students would be asked to “monitor local internet forums and IRC [channels] for pirated Warner Bros. … content in order to gather information on pirate sites, groups, and activities,” among other responsibilities…

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School webcam spying prompts call for new laws

Privacy laws haven't kept up with changes in technology, says Sen. Arlen Specter.

Privacy laws haven't kept up with changes in technology, says Sen. Arlen Specter.

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., is pushing for new federal laws on electronic privacy as a school district in his home state struggles with a lawsuit over attempts to locate missing laptops by turning on webcams remotely—something that could have enabled it to record students at home.

Specter said at a field hearing of a Senate subcommittee March 29 that he believes existing wiretap and video-voyeurism statutes do not adequately address concerns in an era marked by the widespread use of cell-phone, laptop, and surveillance cameras.

“My family and I recognize that in today’s society, almost every place we go outside of our home we are photographed and recorded by traffic cameras, ATM cameras, and store surveillance cameras,” Blake Robbins, a student at Harriton High School who sued the Lower Merion School District last month, wrote in a statement read into the record at the hearing of the crime and justice subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“This makes it all the more important that we vigilantly safeguard our homes, the only refuge we have from this eyes-everywhere onslaught,” he wrote.

Robbins accuses the Lower Merion School District of spying by secretly activating webcams on school-issued laptops. District officials admit they did so but said they were trying only to locate 42 lost or stolen computers.

Neither Robbins nor his parents attended the session, which did not specifically focus on the Lower Merion case—the subject of ongoing county and FBI investigations. Instead, five experts debated how best to strike a balance between privacy and security concerns.

Lawyer Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation argued that wiretap laws, which now cover audio recordings, should be broadened to include videotaped surveillance. But others disagreed, arguing that wiretap charges should not apply, lest they entangle innocent people using software tracking programs to try to find their own stolen phones or laptops.

“If it does fall under [the Wiretap Act] in the new legislation, we hope there will be an exception for stolen devices,” said John Livingston, chairman of Absolute Software Corp., the Vancouver, British Columbia-based company that acquired the LANrev TheftTrack software program deployed by Lower Merion. (Absolute Software no longer promotes the use of LANrev for anti-theft purposes; see “Experts: Schools can track laptops less intrusively.”)

The panel debated whether any new law should focus on the intent of the person using the camera; whether the subject’s location affords them an expectation of privacy, such as a home or locker room; or the full context of the situation.

Only one person from the Lower Merion district testified: a parent opposed to the Robbins family’s lawsuit, who urged a middle ground between security and privacy concerns.

Bob Wegbreit said a warning might suffice to let families know the district might activate webcams without a student’s knowledge. Students then could choose to keep the computers in other parts of the house, instead of their bedrooms, said Wegbreit, whose group fears the lawsuit will damage the upscale district’s finances and reputation.

Federal legislation might help clarify what school districts, employers, or others can and cannot do, he said.

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Schools turn to unified communications to save costs, boost productivity

Schools are increasingly considering unified communications solutions.

Schools are increasingly considering unified communications solutions.

More K-12 schools, colleges, and universities are turning to unified communications as a way to streamline campus communication and save much-needed money in unpredictable economic times, a new survey suggests.

Unified communications is the convergence of enterprise voice, video, and data services with software applications designed to achieve greater collaboration among individuals or groups and improve business processes. Component technologies include video, audio, and web conferencing; unified messaging; and more.

The benefits that education technology stakeholders see in implementing unified communications are the same that executives in the government and business sectors see, according to the second annual Unified Communications Tracking Poll from CDW Government Inc. (CDW-G), which provides products and services to education and other sectors.

Fifty-four percent of school IT executives said reducing operating costs is the top benefit of unified communications, followed by increased productivity (50 percent) and more reliable communication (44 percent).

“IT executives report that economic pressures were a greater concern in 2009 than in 2008, but for many, the return on investment from UC deployments is so compelling that they ask, ‘Why wouldn’t we do this?’” said Pat Scheckel, vice president of converged infrastructure solutions at CDW-G. “The result is reduced costs, increased productivity, and improved decision making—benefits that resonate across every industry, especially in a recessionary economy.”

K-12 deployment

K-12 institutions, new to the tracking poll in 2010, see emergency notification as a key benefit of unified communications technology.

Of K-12 survey respondents, 39 percent said they were assessing their district’s unified communications needs, 30 percent were planning an implementation, 18 percent had started implementing, and 13 percent had fully deployed unified communications.

School leaders in Indiana’s Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation began to develop a strategic district plan and held more than 200 public meetings for community members, and installing top-notch communications technology emerged as one of five core focus areas.

“We realized that the first thing we needed was a solid infrastructure,” said Mike Russ, the district’s chief technology officer. “A key part of that was a good communications system.”

Russ said the district had been installing a voice-over-IP (VoIP) system piecemeal as it could afford to do so, but decided to move forward with full implementation in the strategic plan.

Before, “teachers never had phones in [their] classrooms, and it’s also important for safety and security that teachers be able to communicate in case of a crisis,” Russ said.

Teachers received wireless VoIP telephones that move easily as they change classrooms or attend to different bus or cafeteria duties. The phones also display messages on their screens. Voice mail messages also appear as eMails—so if a teacher’s phone is not in reach but the teacher is at a computer, the voice mail message is instantly accessible.

Using Singlewire Software’s InformaCast, school administrators are able to broadcast a message directly to one or more teachers’ telephone screens without making an announcement over a public address system—something that comes in handy in case of surprise early dismissals, Russ said.

The district also uses Blackboard Connect for external messaging and blasts reminders and announcements to parents and other stakeholders.

Russ said the district installed wireless infrastructure and access points, and then gave teachers their telephones and the proper training to go along with the new equipment.

The district has seen immense cost savings since it has implemented its unified communications system.

For example, the district has been able to eliminate most of its regular analog telephone lines, Russ said. The district left some phone lines intact for security purposes, such as alarm systems and elevator operations, but is no longer paying per line, per month, year-round.

“I think we’ll continue to see more benefits as we go along,” Russ said.

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Enough hardware, already!

Schools may see more impact if they look past hardware.

Schools may see more impact if they look past hardware.

Guess the years: a computer in every classroom; internet access in every school; 1:1 laptops for middle or high school students; an interactive whiteboard in every classroom; 3D projectors to make content more engaging.  Now, tell me how education outcomes have improved since 1985 when the goal was a computer in every classroom.  According to the test scores, there has been no significant improvement.  And now that we need to teach 21st century skills, our schools are further from success than they were in 1985.

So why hasn’t technology helped to improve education the way it has made manufacturing more productive, the way it has made financial services more profitable, or the way it has transformed the retail experience through online reviews, recommendations, and shopping?

There is a simple answer: educators have been obsessed with hardware.

The successful modernization of manufacturing, financial services and retail have been supported by software running on pretty much whatever was available.  Mainframe, minicomputer, PC, or portable device using infra-red connection, radio, or Wi-Fi hot spot–nobody really cared.  The essence of the transformation was achieved through software.

Resource planning, process simulation and spreadsheets in manufacturing, yield maximization and customer resource management systems in financial services, and community-building software combined with targeted advertising in retail were used to revolutionize their industries. The use of these applications led to rapid positive shifts in customer experience, reduced costs and dramatic changes among industry leaders and laggards.

Compare those three industries with education, where more than 80 percent of technology funds are spent on hardware and wiring, leaving less than 20 percent for software and training.  The rule of thumb in business is 1/3 hardware, 1/3 software, 1/3 training and support.  After spending 10 percent on software and 5 percent on training, educators wonder why they don’t see significant impact.  The answer is that they have not invested adequately in software and the training to ensure its use.

But, educators respond, we need hardware before we can run software.  True enough–but not an excuse for inappropriate investment.  A better model is to select the software that will have the largest possible educational impact.  Then, spec out the amount you can afford using the one-third rule and buy that much.  Install it, train instructors and students, use it and then, measure the results.  If they were positive, use the success to justify another round of investment.  But, be careful, you might need something different for the next group of students!  If the results were not positive, analyze the problem and try to fix it–are you targeting the right students, did you achieve greater than 80 percent utilization in year one, did you provide adequate support for new users?  Those are the three most common points for failure.

Only after considering those failure points, and others, you need to ask yourself if you should abandon your investment and try another.  That is the second major difference between education and industry.  In education, we like to try new things.  In industry, they work to make their investments successful.  Why don’t we do the same?  Often we worry that our jobs are at risk–won’t technology replace us?  No–teachers will never go away.  Our roles will change–from giving performances that provide information in an entertaining way to deeper and more satisfying relationships with our students as we guide their personal learning journeys.  Administrators won’t disappear.  They will shift from responding to daily crises to leading and guiding teachers, students, parents and community members through technology-supported planning.

Once we see those new roles, perhaps we can seize the tools that will help us fulfill them.

The software tools:
•    virtual teaching and learning environments that are as easy to use as social networks, yet as powerful as amazon.com’s 1-Click shopping tool is to the retail market
•    assignment tools that use existing assessment data to help us predict which students will respond positively to different teaching methods and curriculum materials, and then suggest assignments based on their analysis
•    skill development software that ensures all students master basic reading, writing, calculation, problem solving and technology skills
•    professional community building tools that help teachers and administrators share their experiences and learn from their peers

All of these tools exist today, yet most teachers and administrators are not aware of them.  They are distracted by netbooks, interactive whiteboards and 3D projectors.  Well, the solution is in front of you.  Search the web or a conference exhibit hall.  Try software demos the way you would flip through books in a bookstore.  Don’t let yourself get distracted anymore.  The improvement of education will be enacted through the software applications you choose.  Go choose them well.

Jon Bower is President of it’s learning, inc., and former CEO of Lexia Learning Systems and Soliloquy Learning.  He has been exploring the role of technology in educational improvement since the late 1970’s.

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Delaware, Tennessee win first ‘Race to the Top’ grants

Winners in the first round of Race to the Top have been announced.

Winners in the first round of Race to the Top have been announced.

Broad support from key stakeholders, including elected officials, teachers’ unions, and local business leaders, was an important factor in awarding the first round of “Race to the Top” grants to Delaware and Tennessee, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) said March 29.

Those two states were the only ones chosen from among 16 finalists to receive part of an unprecedented $4.35 billion to help them improve student performance and transform struggling schools.

“We received many strong proposals from states all across America, but two applications stood out above all others: Delaware and Tennessee,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in announcing the winners. “Both states have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools. They have written new laws to support their policies. And they have demonstrated the courage, capacity, and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students.”

Delaware will receive $100 million and Tennessee $500 million to implement their comprehensive school-reform plans over the next four years. ED will have about $3.4 billion available for the second phase of the Race to the Top competition.

“We set a very high bar for the first phase,” Duncan said. “With $3.4 billion still available, we’re providing plenty of opportunity for all other states to develop plans and aggressively pursue reform.”

The $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund includes $4 billion for competitive grants to encourage statewide education reform and $350 million to help states improve the quality of their assessments. The competitive grants are designed to reward states that are leading the way in implementing comprehensive reforms across four key areas:

(1) Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace;

(2) Building data systems that measure student growth and inform teachers and principals how to improve instruction;

(3) Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and

(4) Turning around their lowest-performing schools.

Forty states and the District of Columbia submitted applications for the first phase of grants. Delaware and Tennessee were selected from among 16 finalists who presented their proposals to panels of peer reviewers earlier this month.

The winners beat out Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

Federal officials will collect a second round of applications for the highly selective program by June 1. The states that were not picked this time can reapply for grants then.

To help states as they prepare their Phase 2 proposals, ED has made all Phase 1 applications, peer reviewers’ comments, and scores available on its web site; videos of states’ presentations will be posted next week.

“A lot of people said, ‘They’re going to end up giving it to lots of states’ and ‘the federal government can never really be selective.’ It turns out they actually were,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “They’re setting the bar this high that only two states met it, it sends a very powerful message.”

Officials said Georgia and Florida were third and fourth in the rankings for the grants, which means they have an advantage over other states for the second round of grants. Still, several of the finalists are already vowing to reapply for the money.

“We were honored to be one of only 16 finalists for this highly competitive grant, and we will immediately begin working on our application for the next round of funding,” said Deborah A. Gist, commissioner of elementary and secondary education in Rhode Island.

Observers say the winners took to heart the education reforms pushed by the Obama administration, including performance pay for teachers and welcoming charter school policies.

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9 charged with bullying Mass. teen who killed self

Prince's classmates are accused of incessant harrassment and stalking.

Prince's classmates are accused of incessant harrassment and stalking.

Nine teens have been charged in the “unrelenting” bullying of a teenage girl from Ireland  who killed herself after being raped and enduring months of torment by classmates in person and online, a prosecutor said March 29.

Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley was stalked and harassed nearly constantly from September until she killed herself Jan. 14. The freshman had recently moved to western Massachusetts from Ireland.

“The investigation revealed relentless activities directed toward Phoebe to make it impossible for her to stay at school. The bullying for her was intolerable,” Scheibel said.

Six teens — four girls and two boys — face charges including statutory rape, assault, violation of civil rights resulting in injury, criminal harassment, disturbance of a school assembly and stalking. Three younger girls face delinquency charges.

Scheibel said the harassment began in September. She said school officials knew about the bullying, but none will face criminal charges.

“The actions of these students were primarily conducted on school grounds during school hours and while school was in session,” the prosecutor said.

Scheibel refused to discuss the circumstances of the rape charges.

Prince’s family has moved away from the area and could not immediately be located for comment. Scheibel spoke for them at a news conference to announce the charges.

“The Prince family has asked that the public refrain from vigilantism in favor of allowing the judicial system an opportunity to provide a measure of justice for Phoebe,” she said.

Some students accused of participating in the bullying have been disciplined by the school and will not be returning to classes.

Scheibel said the case is still under investigation, and there may be additional charges.

The Massachusetts Legislature cited Prince’s death and the apparent suicide of 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover of Springfield last year when members passed anti-bullying legislation earlier this month.

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