Google launches do-it-yourself app creation software

Google is bringing Android software development to the masses, reports the New York Times. The company will offer a software tool, starting July 12, that is intended to make it easy for people to write applications for its Android smart phones. The free software, called Google App Inventor for Android, has been under development for a year. User testing has been done mainly in schools with groups that included sixth graders, high school girls, nursing students, and university undergraduates who are not computer science majors. The thinking behind the initiative, Google said, is that as cell phones increasingly become the computers that people rely on most, users should be able to make applications themselves. “The goal is to enable people to become creators, not just consumers, in this mobile world,” said Harold Abelson, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is on sabbatical at Google and led the project. The project is a further sign that Google is betting that its strategy of opening up its technology to all kinds of developers eventually will give it the upper hand in the smart-phone software market. Its leading rival, Apple, takes a more tightly managed approach to application development for the iPhone, controlling the software and vetting the programs available. “We could only have done this because Android’s architecture is so open,” Abelson said, adding that the project aims to give users, especially young people, a simple tool to let them tinker with smart-phone software, much as people have done with computers…

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Boston judge cuts penalty in song-sharing case

A federal judge on July 9 drastically trimmed a $675,000 verdict against a Boston University graduate student who was found liable for illegally downloading and sharing 30 songs online, saying the jury damage award against a person who gained no financial benefit from his copyright infringement is “unconstitutionally excessive,” reports the Associated Press. Joel Tenenbaum, from Providence, R.I., was sued by some of the largest music companies who said he violated copyright rules. He admitted in court to downloading songs between 1999 and 2007. The jury found him liable and assessed the damage award last July. His lawyers appealed, calling the award “severe” and “oppressive” and asking the court for a new trial or reduced damages. Judge Nancy Gertner cut the damage award to $67,500—three times the statutory minimum—and said the new the amount “not only adequately compensates the plaintiffs for the relatively minor harm that Tenenbaum caused them; it sends a strong message that those who exploit peer-to-peer networks to unlawfully download and distribute copyrighted works run the risk of incurring substantial damages awards.” Gertner also denied Tenenbaum’s request for a new trial. “There is no question that this reduced award is still severe, even harsh,” Gertner said, noting that the law used by the jury to penalize Tenenbaum did not offer any meaningful guidance on the question of what amount of damages was appropriate. The Recording Industry Association of America said it will appeal Gertner’s ruling, adding: “With this decision, the court has substituted its judgment for that of 10 jurors as well as Congress…”

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Patent holder sues smart-phone makers over patents

The patent-holding company that won a settlement of more than $600 million from the maker of the BlackBerry has sued six other companies in the smart-phone industry, reports the Associated Press. Patent company NTP Inc. is suing Apple, Google, Microsoft, HTC, Motorola, and LG Electronics, claiming infringement of the same patents that were at issue in its case against BlackBerry maker Research In Motion. The lawsuit against RIM ended with a $612.5 million settlement in 2006. However, changes in court practices have reduced NTP’s power to win large settlements, and if NTP prevails, it’s likely to receive much less from each defendant this time. Microsoft and Apple said they had no comment; the other targets did not respond to requests for comment. NTP was founded by Thomas Campana, an inventor, and Don Stout, a lawyer. Campana worked on wireless eMail technology in the early 1990s, but never commercialized the technology. He died in 2004. In the aftermath of the RIM settlement, NTP’s patents have been re-examined by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and many of their claims have been thrown out. But the office upheld three of the 10 patent claims that RIM was found to have infringed, said Stout, NTP’s president. In 2006 and 2007, NTP sued the nation’s four largest wireless carriers—AT&T, Deutsche Telekom AG’s T-Mobile USA, Sprint Nextel Corp., and Verizon Wireless—and phone maker Palm Inc. over the same patents; those lawsuits are still pending…

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Judge OKs iPhone class action against Apple, AT&T

A federal judge says a monopoly abuse lawsuit against Apple Inc. and AT&T Inc.’s mobile phone unit can move forward as a class action, reports the Associated Press. The lawsuit consolidates several filed by iPhone buyers starting in late 2007, a few months after the first generation of Apple’s smart phone went on sale. An amended complaint filed in June 2008 takes issue with Apple’s practice of “locking” iPhones so they can only be used on AT&T’s network, and its absolute control over what applications iPhone owners can and cannot install on the gadgets. The lawsuit also says Apple secretly made AT&T its exclusive iPhone partner in the U.S. for five years. Consumers agreed to two-year contracts with the Dallas-based wireless carrier when they purchased their phones, but were in effect locked into a five-year relationship with AT&T, the lawsuit argues. The actions hurt competition and drove up prices for consumers, the suit claims. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to keep Apple from selling locked iPhones in the U.S. and from determining what iPhone programs people can install. It also seeks damages to cover legal fees and other costs. The class-action suit includes anyone who bought an iPhone with a two-year AT&T agreement since the device first went on sale in June 2007…

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Securing K-12 networks for 1:1 computing

students-using-laptopThe adoption of 1:1 computing programs and online K-12 learning programs are driving an industry-wide move toward accessible network access. In East Grand Rapids Public Schools, and in school districts nationwide, requirements to provide students and teachers with easy access to online tools and the internet are paramount to creating an effective learning environment.

With today’s budget cuts, the only sustainable way to provide 1:1 computing is to allow students to bring their own computers to school. Deploying a network access control (NAC) solution that supports a multi-vendor environment, wireless and wired networks, and multiple computing device types is a necessary best practice for accomplishing this.

We talk a lot about “democratizing student access to technology” around here–letting students choose the computing platforms and learning tools that work best for them. NAC gives students access to networks and learning resources using the devices of their choice, and keeps them off restricted networks while providing the security and malware protection that prevent network outages.

At our school district, which has 2,900 students and close to 500 employees, our challenges include providing access to technology while segmenting network resources so that students do not have access to private information (such as staff and administrative data) all while managing a tight budget. Before NAC, granting individual access and appropriate privileges to printers, applications (such as Moodle educational software, our learning management system of online books and learning tools), and the internet was a constant issue.

The need for this NAC best practice grew in 2003, when a committee of students, staff, administrators, and school board members decided that the use of students’ personal devices on campus was needed, initiating what we call our “Allow Program.” Before our NAC best practice was in place, at that time securing access privileges meant that students had to fill out forms, and meet with IT to evaluate their machines and discuss procedures–for example, there is no file sharing allowed. After this lengthy process, the student’s device was manually configured for access to the district’s wireless network. This took a lot of time and was a deterrent for students, and initially only 17 participants joined to the program. We clearly saw that the time spent to secure access for each student’s machine was a hassle and hindered their participation.

We knew we needed to make this easier, and we had to take the IT team out of the process. I learned that a NAC solution would automate this process, and then spent time researching what would work best for our network. Among the many best practices I discovered is that a NAC solution needs to support open standards–our NAC solution could not dictate the directory services or the brands of infrastructure we use. A policy-based solution would also help with differentiating access, and deploying 802.1X WLAN security.

I initially looked at solutions from Cisco, Juniper Networks, Sophos and Symantec, but none delivered the functionality I needed. I also struggled with vendor lock-in from these solutions, since they didn’t rely on open standards. They also supported a limited number of operating systems and user device types.

I learned about Avenda Systems and its identity-aware access control platform called eTIPS at an Interop event. The Avenda platform could centrally manage policies across all access methods and frameworks, and it included the tools we needed to easily register our students and their devices. It would also work with our entire district’s existing network infrastructure, and identity stores. 802.1X security authentication and authorization mechanisms were also important.

With a NAC solution, we could see improving our security, and eliminating the manual provisioning of guest access. We could see how participation in our Allow Program would increase, because students wouldn’t have to meet with the tech guys anymore.

As a result, we deployed our NAC solution, which allows us to set granular access policies for staff and students, and also guests, by identity, role, assessment of their devices, etc. Provided templates for deploying 802.1X and wireless infrastructure polices were also helpful. The NAC solution supported our mix of network components, which was critical, including Siemens wireless controllers, Enterasys LAN switches, and server platforms running Apple, Novell, Linux, Windows, and OS2 operating systems. We also support a mix of Windows, Linux, and Mac student machines.


Survey reveals slow progress in education technology

The annual survey lets schools measure their progress toward a 21st century education.

SIIA's annual survey lets schools measure their progress toward providing a 21st-century education.

U.S. schools’ average overall scores on an annual survey designed to measure their progress toward implementing 21st-century classrooms and learning skills increased less than 1 percent from 2009, even though schools did improve on four out of five measures of progress.

The Vision K-20 survey, from the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), was developed to help educators and administrators track their institutional progress in five areas, called measures of progress, and compare it with the national average. These five measures are 21st-century learning tools, anytime/anywhere access to technology, differentiated learning, assessment tools, and enterprise support. The aggregate results give a picture of the nation’s progress in education technology as a whole. The 20 survey questions, each designed to measure a particular indicator of ed-tech implementation, are grouped according to the five measures of progress.

The average overall score for the 21st-century tools category in 2010 was 68 percent, tied for the highest score in any category with enterprise support, also at 68 percent. Anytime/anywhere access received an average score of 64 percent, differentiated learning received 57 percent, and the assessment tools category averaged 48 percent, suggesting that schools have room for improvement when it comes to using technology to aid in assessment.

“America’s students are moving ever more quickly to 21st-century technologies, but education leaders and institutions are not responding with the educational framework needed to keep pace with either the opportunity or the needs,” said Karen Billings, vice president of SIIA’s education division.

Educators can use the Vision K-20 initiative to better understand how to incorporate technology into their curricula and instruction, ensuring that students are prepared to compete on a global scale, Billings said.

“We really felt we needed to promote a vision for leveraging technology [in education],” she added.

When the average scores across all five categories are combined, schools and colleges are still only 62 percent of the way toward achieving SIIA’s Vision K-20 benchmarks. This aggregate score was 61.8 percent in 2009 and 60.9 percent in 2008.

The survey pinpoints seven vision goals that institutions can use technology to help them achieve: meeting the needs of all students; supporting accountability and informing instruction; deepening learning and motivating students; facilitating communication, connectivity, and collaboration; effectively and economically managing the education enterprise; enabling students to learn from any place at any time; and nurturing creativity and self-expression.

Economic troubles have contributed to schools’ slow progress when it comes to implementing the technology framework necessary to help students attain 21st-century skills, Billings said.

“This year has been even more challenging for education, given the economic downturn and decreased budgets. With scarce resources, it becomes even more critical for institutions to use technology to more efficiently achieve their educational goals and outcomes,” she added. “SIIA calls on education leaders and public officials to increase support for, and adoption of, innovative technology-based and online educational models needed to meet the needs of today’s digital-native learners and prepare them for the digital, knowledge economy.”

The two benchmark indicators with the highest degree of implementation in the 20-question survey were security tools to protect student data and privacy (84 percent) and the availability of high-speed broadband access for robust communication, administrative, and instructional needs (84 percent).

Despite flat overall growth in the aggregate score of schools, the average ratings for all measures—except for enterprise support—showed modest gains in 2010.

Larger institutions tended to have higher scores on all measures than smaller institutions, the survey found. There were no systematic differences by type of setting (i.e., location).

The survey also revealed that postsecondary institutions lead the K-12 sector in overall average measures of progress, scoring higher than K-12 on 18 of the 20 responses. K-12 and postsecondary institutions scored the same, each averaging 85 percent, in using security tools to protect student data and privacy. K-12 schools scored an average of 67 percent, while postsecondary institutions scored an average of 64 percent, in using information systems that provide digital student and achievement data to support instructional decisions by educators and administrators.

SIIA attributes this latter result to a potential reflection of No Child Left Behind requirements that K-12 educators and administrators use achievement data to support instructional decisions.

Within the K-12 sector, respondents at the district level reported higher scores than respondents from individual elementary or secondary schools, “possibly because district-level personnel might be more familiar with these particular topics than their colleagues at the building level,” the survey notes.

The benchmark indicators with the highest increases in average scores were:

• Personal ePortfolios travel with students to demonstrate a wide range of skills and knowledge (increased 3.3 percentage points)

• Interactive, adaptive, multimedia courseware and simulations are used in teaching and learning (increased 3.1 percentage points)

• Students have access to courseware and technology-based curriculum (increased 2.7 percentage points)


British school launches talking PCs for students who can’t speak English

A primary school where more than half the students do not speak English recently became Britain’s first to provide every child with a computerized translator, Asian News International reports. The program, called “damaging and dangerous” by critics, will enable 60 percent of the 384 pupils to communicate with teachers using the software. Children type questions into the computer in their native language, which are translated out loud into English for the teacher. Teachers type instructions for pupils, which can be translated back into 25 different languages. English-speaking pupils also can use the translator to communicate with foreign classmates. Manor Park Primary School in Aston, Birmingham, is the first in the U.K. to give the “Talking Tutor” software to every student. Developed by EMAS UK, the software translates English into 25 languages, including Polish, Urdu, and Chinese. A further 200 can be translated on-screen. Head teacher Jason Smith said: “Just because English isn’t a pupil’s first language, it doesn’t mean they aren’t academically gifted, so this allows us to assess them in their own language while helping them with their English at the same time.” But some, like Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, are unhappy with the move. “Surely it would be better to give foreign-speaking youngsters an intensive course in English before they start school,” he told the Daily Express, adding: “There is a danger that this computer translator will keep children within their own social group, which could be damaging to their future prospects.”

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Colleges spend more on recreation than class

According to a new study of college costs, American colleges are spending a smaller share of their budgets on instruction, and more on recreational facilities for students and on administration, reports the New York Times. The report, based on government data, documents a growing stratification of wealth across America’s system of higher education. At the top of the pyramid are private colleges and universities, which educate a small portion of the nation’s students, while public universities and community colleges serve greater numbers, have fewer resources, and are seeing tuitions rise most rapidly. The United States is reputed to have the world’s wealthiest postsecondary education system, with average spending of around $19,000 per student compared with $8,400 across other developed countries, says the report, “Trends in College Spending 1998-2008,” by the Delta Cost Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for controlling costs to keep college affordable. “Our analysis shows that these comparisons are misleading,” said Jane Wellman, the project’s executive director. “While the United States has some of the wealthiest institutions in the world, it also has a system of postsecondary education with far more economic stratification than is true of any other country.” Community colleges, which enroll about a third of students, spend close to $10,000 per student per year, while the private research institutions, which enroll far fewer students, spend an average $35,000 a year for each one…

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First projector-equipped Android smart phone to ship

Video chat is all the rage when it comes to new smart phones like the HTC Evo 4G and the iPhone 4, but Samsung’s latest Android smart phone comes to the fore with a different would-be killer feature, Yahoo News reports: a tiny “pico” projector, good for throwing an image up to 50 inches across on a nearby wall. The Samsung Galaxy Beam, code-named Halo when it was first unveiled at this year’s Mobile World Congress, is set to go on sale next week—but not in the United States. StarHub subscribers in Singapore will be getting first dibs starting July 17, according to a Samsung press release, followed by other territories in Asia and Europe later this year. As for North America, that’s still up in the air, apparently…

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One Laptop Per Child to add multi-touch screen to future XO-1.75 laptop

The nonprofit organization One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) on July 8 said it is adding a multi-touch screen to its upcoming XO-1.75 laptop and is modifying software to take advantage of the new hardware, PC World reports. The low-cost XO-1.75 with a touch-sensitive 8.9-inch screen will start shipping next year. The laptop will run on an Arm processor and is the successor to the current XO-1.5 laptop, which runs on a Via x86 processor. OLPC also will add a multi-touch screen on the next-generation XO-3 tablet, which is due to ship in 2012. Customers could be interested in buying XO-1.75 laptops as low-power replacements to existing XO-1 machines, which don’t have touch capabilities, said Chris Ball, lead software engineer for OLPC, in an eMail. However, OLPC will also sell less-expensive XO-1.75 machines without touch screens, he said. OLPC wants to use the XO-1.75 laptops as a platform to test and develop appropriate touch interfaces for the next-generation XO-3 tablets, he said. The XO laptops are designed for kids in primary schools, and touch capabilities could reduce the need to use a mouse to move or manipulate images or to scroll through documents. The XO-1.75 will include a physical keyboard, but the XO-3 tablet design will include only an on-screen keyboard…

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