NYC schools to deploy free eMail, collaboration tools

Parents will now have a way to interact with teachers and school staff in any language. Image copyright ICG.

New York City parents will have a way to interact with teachers and school staff in any language. (Image copyright ICG)

In what could be a huge sign of change in how students learn, New York City Public Schools has begun implementation of communication and collaboration software from ePals and Microsoft—education technology tools that not only will connect students to other classrooms across the world but also will connect teachers to parents, regardless of the language they speak.

The New York City Department of Education (DOE)—the largest system of public schools in the United States, serving about 1.1 million students in more than 1,600 schools—chose ePals in a competitive-bidding process. The DOE was looking for a cost-effective, secure, and private space where students easily could communicate and collaborate as part of their learning.

ePals won the bid, providing the DOE with free access to its SchoolMail product—secure eMail software that is hosted on the web and integrates technologies from Microsoft’s Live@edu, so the district does not need to maintain its own software, hardware, or server-side technology for the deployment.

The cloud-based solution is expected to save the district from spending up to $5 million annually on infrastructure needed to host eMail for students, teachers, and parents, officials said.

“In New York City, we have an empowerment model, meaning the principal of each school acts as CEO, having the power over decisions relating to budgets, programs, and personnel, in exchange for higher accountability,” said a DOE representative in an interview with eSchool News. “Many schools have been trying to set up their own eMail systems, and there’s been a big push towards online learning and communication with students and parents. All of this takes a tremendous amount of resources and work. That’s why we decided to try this project.”

The DOE not only was looking for a product that could offer varying degrees of monitoring and filtering across staff and administration, but it also sought a tool that could leverage eMail and communication as part of a blended learning model.

“Schools are increasingly moving towards a student-centric model of learning, and one way to focus on student learning is by [giving students] a tool that they know how to communicate with and will want to communicate and learn with—eMail,” the representative said.

According to Tim DiScipio, co-founder of ePals, students who use ePals increase their writing output and have improved spelling and communication skills because they are communicating with their peers.

“They want to be seen as articulate and convey what they know. It’s definitely a self-directed learning tool,” he said.

City students also will be able to communicate with classrooms across the world as part of ePals’ global community, which reaches 600,000 educators who teach 25 million students worldwide. (Read more about ePals teacher-led pen pal projects here.)

Students, and teachers, also can take part in online journaling, mentoring, and writing projects.

ePals SchoolMail will be provided without advertising of any kind to students. Parents, too, will be given free accounts, and these will be supported through educationally appropriate ads.

This will enable parents to interact with teachers and school staff in almost any language. Parents will be able to receive eMail regarding school events and their children’s progress in class.

“For the first time, we’ll be providing every parent with an eMail account or linking to their own eMail account,” said the DOE representative. “SchoolMail can translate instantly in 58 languages, which is important considering that more than 40 percent of the city’s students report speaking a language other than English at home.”

The deal is a big win not only for ePals, but also for Microsoft, which is competing with Google in offering schools free eMail and productivity software. In April, Microsoft and ePals announced a collaboration in which ePals users would have access to Microsoft’s Live@edu and, eventually, web-based versions of Microsoft Office software.

“Having the safety and security of Live@edu, the opportunities for collaborative learning provided by ePals, and the low-cost solution of using the cloud for hosting is a great marriage for schools,” Anthony Salcito, vice president of education for Microsoft, told eSchool News. “ePals gives us the chance to work with the K-12 market, and we bring the enterprise-level, reliable, and scalable solution of Live@edu.”


‘Terapixel’ project lets users explore the cosmos from a PC

SiteofWeek071410In a project that aims to pull a new generation of students toward science and technology, Microsoft and NASA have teamed up to create what they say is the largest seamless, spherical map ever made of the night sky, as well as a true-color, high-resolution map of Mars that users can explore on their computers in 3D. The mission, Microsoft and NASA say, is to inspire today’s students and spark interest in the STEM fields, and it appears to be
working: In studying photos of Mars taken by a NASA spacecraft, a group of seventh graders in California earlier this year discovered a previously unknown cave, as well as lava tubes that NASA scientists hadn’t noticed.

“What we’re trying to do at NASA is make our data more accessible,” said Chris Kemp, chief technology officer for NASA, “and we’re doing that by connecting students in the classroom and at home to a user-friendly platform.” Called Terapixel, the night sky project is now available for viewing with Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope, a free, web-based program that functions as a virtual telescope, bringing together imagery from ground and space-based telescopes to enable seamless, guided explorations of the universe. Created with Microsoft’s Visual Experience Engine, it enables seamless panning and zooming across the night sky, blending terabytes of images, data, and stories from multiple sources over the internet into a single, immersive experience. “The U.S. really needs to get re-stimulated by science,” said Tony Hey, corporate vice president of Microsoft External Research, “and we’re trying to do that by providing full access, in a visually stunning and understandable way, to astronomers’ data and research.”


Researchers find privacy flaws in Chatroulette

Perhaps there is finally something to deter users from their more offensive behavior, PC World reports: University researchers say that users of the popular video-chat site might not be as anonymous, or as private, as they think. In a paper posted online this week, researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder and McGill University outline three different types of attacks that could be launched against Chatroulette users. Founded last year by 17-year-old Russian entrepreneur Andrey Ternovskiy, Chatroulette links web surfers randomly into one-on-one video chat conversations. The site has come under fire, however, because of nudity and inappropriate behavior. The new research doesn’t expose any gaping privacy holes, but it does show how the service could be misused by determined criminals. For example, researchers describe a type of video phishing attack, where the criminals would simply play a video of an attractive woman who appears to be chatting with the victim, with audio disabled. The novelty and apparent intimacy of a chat session could make it easier to con people into friending scammers on Facebook or even visiting malicious web sites, said Richard Han, an associate professor with the University of Colorado who co-authored the paper. An and other researchers also found a way to make Chatroulette’s anonymous chats much less anonymous…

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Apple silent after Consumer Reports critique

A decision by Consumer Reports against endorsing the latest iPhone because of reception problems threatens to tarnish Apple Inc.’s reputation, yet fans who have braved poor reception for years are likely to keep buying the product, reports the Associated Press. In fact, some analysts say Apple could simply ignore calls by bloggers and others to recall the iPhone 4 or offer free cases to mitigate the problems. As of July 13, Apple hadn’t returned phone calls or eMail messages about the Consumer Reports critique, which the venerable arbiter of product quality posted on its web site July 12. While some Apple watchers find the company’s responses to the reception issue objectionable, they don’t see any penalties for Apple if it does nothing further. People buy iPhones for emotional reasons, not because they’re the best phones, said Deborah Mitchell, executive director of the Center for Brand and Product Management at the University of Wisconsin. “People see you using the iPhone, and they think you are a certain type of person—hip, fresh, and youthful in attitude,” she said. “It’s a brand that helps you identify yourself.”

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Groups sue Mass. over newly expanded obscenity law

A coalition of booksellers and internet content providers filed a federal lawsuit on July 13, challenging an expansion of Massachusetts’ obscenity law to include electronic communications that might be harmful to minors, reports the Associated Press. Supporters say the new law, which went into effect July 13, closes a loophole that led the state’s highest court to overturn the conviction of a Beverly man accused of sending sexually explicit instant messages to someone he believed was a 13-year-old girl. The Supreme Judicial Court, ruling in a case in February, found that the state’s obscenity law didn’t apply to instant messages. The new law, passed quickly by the state Legislature after the ruling, added instant messages, text messages, eMail, and other electronic communications to the old law. But the changes amount to “a broad censorship law that imposes severe content-based restrictions” on the dissemination of constitutionally protected speech, the lawsuit argues. The plaintiffs include the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Association of American Publishers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and other groups. They argue that the expanded law effectively bans from the internet anything that might be considered “harmful to minors,” including material that adults have a First Amendment right to view, including information about contraception, pregnancy, sexual health, literature, and art…

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On Facebook, telling teachers how much they meant

People who have been out of school for decades are expressing sentiments on social-networking web sites that they dared not express in their youth, reports the New York Times. At a time when public school teachers are being blamed for everything from poor test scores to budget crises, Facebook is one place where they are receiving adulation, albeit delayed. The site has drawn more attention as a platform for adolescent meanness and bullying, and as a vehicle for high school and college students to ruthlessly dissect their teachers. But people who are 20, 30, or 40 years beyond graduation are using Facebook to re-establish relationships with teachers and express gratitude and overdue respect. On Facebook walls and dedicated tribute pages, the writings include moving messages (“You inspired each of us to learn and go beyond what we thought we could achieve”), lighthearted claims on old debts (“You owe us a pool party—you promised us one if the Dow ever reached 3,000”), and recollections of specific events (“You got me out of detention one time”)…

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Online testing of students: Will Florida be ready?

Central Florida school administrators are fearing technology snarls and scheduling nightmares when thousands of high-school students start taking standardized math exams on computers next school year, reports the Orlando Sentinel. Many local high schools do not have enough computers, sufficient network access, or even the right rooms to securely test hundreds of students online, educators say. In another tight budget year, finding money for needed upgrades—they could cost $750,000 in Seminole County alone—isn’t easy. Florida’s track record with computer-based testing is short and problem-plagued, adding to administrators’ apprehension about the test change. The debut of the state’s online reading test last fall and its trial run of computerized FCAT and algebra exams this spring both were marred by mishaps. And there is the potential for even more trouble in coming years, administrators fear, as the number of computer-based standardized tests increases. Next spring, some 370,000 ninth- and 10th-graders statewide are to take online the math section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and a new algebra end-of-course exam. A smaller number of older students is scheduled to take FCAT math online in the fall. A survey by the Florida Department of Education this spring showed that only two districts deemed themselves fully ready for computer-based testing…

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Innovation in manufacturing: More than just new technology

adultshuddleThe demands on today’s workforce are quite different than a decade ago. This is no truer for U.S. manufacturing than other sectors of our economy. However, manufacturing–unlike other industry segments–has had to quickly learn that competitiveness is more than keeping pace with changes on the “factory floor.” To remain competitive, businesses must also ensure that the “front office” is equally prepared to successfully manage business operations against adaptive supply chains, new technologies, and shifting market demands.

Across all industries, U.S. executives and plant managers report that a skilled, educated workforce is the single most critical–and hardest to acquire–element to the success of their business.  The portability and mobility of today’s workforce compounds this problem but also offers an opportunity to employers prepared to be nimble, innovative, and responsive to change.

U.S. manufacturers, employing more than 12 million Americans and supporting an additional 5 million jobs in related industries, are already way ahead of many others in this regard. Manufacturers have begun to link professional education, skills acquisition, and workforce readiness to the shifting demands on their businesses and the need for a more highly trained senior workforce.

But workforce development is always tricky at best.

Over the last decade, workers entering the 14 major industries that compose the U.S. manufacturing sector have had to meet more specialized, high-skill standards than those a generation ago. While these workers replace those who have moved onto higher level positions, a skills and management gap widened. New upper level managers rely on skill sets built on older technologies, changing operational standards, and aging supply chain management knowledge, while the skills paradigm of those entering the “factory floor” are built around different standards and newer technology. Each group essentially has what the other lacks.

To bridge this growing disconnect between the business acumen of the new senior level managers and the evolving skills sets, certifications, and technical skills of workers entering the workforce, the manufacturing sector made a conscious decision to band together to develop an innovative solution to skills and management training best practices.

Leaders drawn from business, skills training, and post-secondary education came together to form the Manufacturing Institute (“Institute”). This independent Institute, born out of the National Association of Manufacturers, has been charged with helping define, develop and, through partnerships, provide access to curriculum, competencies, and certifications appropriate to the manufacturing careers of tomorrow.

As part of these network partners, our institution, University of Phoenix–North America’s largest private university–is working with the Institute to offer working students post-secondary degree programs that align with the core skill sets endorsed by U.S. manufacturers. University of Phoenix’s curriculum model is specifically designed with the working learner in mind, giving students greater access, flexibility, and convenience as they work to obtain advanced education that will offer practical management and professional skills that meet the needs of employers.


3D content for education on the rise

Most of the 3D content now available for education targets math and science.

Most of the 3D content now available for education targets math and science.

At last year’s InfoComm, North America’s largest conference dedicated to audio-visual (AV) technologies, the big story was the emergence of 3D projectors for education. But while several companies demonstrated projectors that could display three-dimensional images with the help of special glasses, at the time there was not a lot of educational content available to justify an investment in 3D projectors for the classroom.

Fast forward to this year’s conference, held last month in Las Vegas, and that has changed.

At least a dozen companies now offer three-dimensional learning content, according to industry sources, and some of the major players in the educational video market are rumored to be developing 3D content as well.

One company displaying its 3D content at InfoComm 2010 was Tactus Technologies, best known for its V-Frog virtual dissection software. Tactus has released a new version of its software that lets students using stereoscopic 3D glasses explore virtual dissections of frogs, flatworms, jellyfish, and sponges in three dimensions—making the images come alive for students, and helping students visualize the special relationships between various parts of the anatomy.

The 3D version of V-Frog is included in a bundle of 3D science software from Tactus that also includes virtual tours of the cell, the atom, motions and forces, and earth-science fundamentals, said Young-Seok Kim, the company’s senior scientist.

Michael Williams, a sales manager for the professional division of XpanD Cinema, which makes active-shutter 3D glasses that work with DLP-Link technology from Texas Instruments (TI), listed 10 companies that now offer 3D learning content, including Tactus. Another of these content providers, JTM Concepts, has partnered with XpanD to bundle its content with XpanD’s 3D glasses and Sharp’s PG-D2500X projector, a 3D-ready DLP projector that offers 2,500 lumens of brightness and a filter-free design.

Included in this bundle are 10 interactive, 3D simulations covering topics such as flower anatomy, the solar system, shape measurement, crystal systems, atomic structure, and photosynthesis. The simulations are from a larger library of 3D content from JTM, called Classroom3.

As the materials from Tactus and JTM suggest, the 3D content now available for education is still mostly science and math-related, said Len Scrogan, director of instructional technology for Colorado’s Boulder Valley Independent School District.

But Scrogan, whose district was one of the first in the United States to install 3D-ready projectors last year, agreed the number of providers with 3D content for education is on the rise, and he said the subjects with the best potential for growth in this area are “social studies and health.”

JTM is in the process of designing 3D content for social studies, Williams said, and Amazing Interactives Ltd., a U.K. company, offers some 3D geography and history content as well, covering topics such as Egyptian medicine and military aircraft.

In a move that could further boost the availability of 3D content for education, Discovery Communications, along with Sony Corp. and IMAX Corp., have formed a joint venture to establish the first dedicated, 24-hours-a-day 3D television network, says Kelli Campbell, senior vice president of global product and content strategy for Discovery Education.

“The network will feature high-quality premium content from genres that are most appealing in 3D, including natural history, space, exploration, adventure, engineering, science, and technology, [as well as] motion pictures from Discovery, Sony Pictures Entertainment, IMAX, and other third-party providers,” Campbell said.

She added: “Discovery Education has always benefited from being a division of Discovery Communications, the world’s No. 1 nonfiction media company. … In the future, we will continue to work collaboratively with our partners across Discovery’s family of networks to bring educators the content they need in all formats.”

Sales of 3D projectors also are on the rise: According to TI, more than 300,000 3D-ready DLP projectors have been installed in classrooms, board rooms, and a variety of other environments worldwide. A number of companies demonstrated new 3D projectors at InfoComm, including BenQ, Christie Digital, and Sharp, which has doubled the number of 3D-ready projectors it now sells (to 10).

How effective 3D content can be in enhancing teaching and learning remains to be seen—but early results seem promising.


Broadband grants mean millions more for higher education

Federal funding will provide more broadband access to students across the nation.

Federal funding will provide more broadband access to students across the nation.

Colleges and universities will be among the anchor institutions in an ultra high-speed nationwide internet network after President Obama earlier this month announced more than $760 million in grants designed to expand broadband web access.

The Departments of Commerce and Agriculture will dole out the federal broadband funding, which will go to 66 recipients, including municipalities, web service providers, libraries, and colleges, according to the White House.

Federal officials estimate that the funds will create 5,000 jobs in the nation’s slumping economy.

Among the grants that most directly affect higher education is the $62.5 million set aside for a national education research network that includes the organization Internet2, also known as the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development.

Working with other organizations and private companies such as Juniper Networks, Cisco, and Ciena, Internet2 hopes to create a nationwide “100 Gigabit per second network backbone” that would link “community anchor institutions,” including schools, community colleges, health centers, libraries, and public safety organizations, according to a July 2 Internet2 announcement.

The ultra high-speed project, called United States Unified Community Anchor Network (U.S. UCAN), would make online courses and telemedicine available at all community college anchor locations, not just two-year campuses located in urban epicenters, where broadband web access is common.

U.S. UCAN has connected 66,000 anchor institutions so far, according to Internet2 officials. The new round of federal broadband grants could grow the network to 100,000 institutions…

Read the full story on eCampus News.