Australia delays internet filter to review content

Australia’s widely criticized proposal to mandate a national web filter blocking child pornography and other objectionable internet content has been delayed at least a year so the government can review what content should be restricted, reports the Associated Press. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said a 12-month review would begin this year into the filter, which would force all Australian ISPs to block a regularly updated list of web sites. If a mandatory filter is passed into law, it would make Australia one of the strictest internet regulators among the world’s democracies. Some critics have said the proposed filter would put the nation in the same censorship league as China. While child pornography was the main target, the filter also seeks to ban sites that included bestiality, rape, and other extreme violence, as well as detailed instructions in crime, drug use, or terrorist acts. “There are some sections of the community that have expressed legitimate concerns that the [restricted content] category … does not accurately reflect current community standards about what type of content should be refused,” Conroy told reporters in Melbourne…

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Solutions aim to ease ed-tech deployment

Bretford's new Juice power system is an easy way for schools to connect up to eight computers to a single outlet.

Bretford's new Juice power system is an easy way for schools to power up to eight computers from a single outlet.

Flexibility was a key theme at the 2010 InfoComm conference in Las Vegas, North America’s largest audio-visual (AV) technology show, where a number of companies demonstrated products intended to help schools deploy education technology more easily.

With more than 60 years of experience in designing furniture that helps students learn, Bretford showcased a number of solutions aimed at simplifying the integration of technology into the classroom. These included laptop carts that can intelligently sense how much power is needed to charge the units and deliver just enough power to meet these needs, as well as a clutter-free system for delivering power to as many as eight computer workstations from a single electrical outlet.

Bretford also unveiled a first-of-its-kind lectern with a built-in, 40-inch flat-panel display on the front, designed to highlight speaker information or reinforce key lecture concepts, and it announced a contest in which it will give away more than $17,000 worth of classroom furniture to one lucky school.

Bretford’s next-generation laptop carts can store up to 20 laptops horizontally or up to 30 laptops vertically. Their 270-degree hinges allow for both front and rear doors to fold back against the carts’ sides, allowing for easy access to the machines, and their perforated metal top, sides, and doors give the laptops ventilation while recharging.

But it’s the carts’ “brain” that is their most innovative feature. The “brain” uses microchip technology to distribute power to the laptops proportionately, reducing heat and saving battery life at the same time.

At InfoComm, Bretford also demonstrated a special netbook cart that it custom-designed for the San Diego Unified School District. The cart can store and charge up to 42 netbooks, and its shelves are removable, so you can take out a shelf to insert a printer or other peripheral device if you don’t need to store so many netbooks. The 42-netbook cart was designed specifically for the San Diego school system but is available for other schools as well.

In older school buildings in particular, it can be costly to add the electrical infrastructure needed to set up computers in a classroom. Bretford’s new Juice Power System aims to solve that problem. It allows up to four tables and eight computer stations to be powered from a single outlet, without the expense of hardwiring or the clutter of individual power strips.

The Juice Power System features a “toolless” installation that doesn’t require an electrician or a building modification, Bretford says, so it can be incorporated into a facility for less than half the cost of most hardwired components. The system will be available in the second half of July at a list price that averages $150 per table.

Schools that are still using Bretford products they bought decades ago have a chance to win free Bretford furniture through a new video contest, the company also announced. Schools that send in a video showing their oldest Bretford product in use are eligible to win furniture for a 30-student classroom, including 15 tables, a Presenter’s Assistant for Learning cart, a laptop cart, a flat-panel display cart, and a projection screen. The total value of the giveaway is more than $17,000. The deadline for submissions is Aug. 31, 2010; for more information, go to www.bretford.com/contest.

Another company that aims to make classroom technology as flexible and simple to deploy as possible is Extron Electronics, which highlighted an easy-to-use AV control system for classrooms with a single display source.

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AT&T network glitch limits iPhone 4 upload speeds

In the latest snag for the iPhone 4, AT&T Inc. said on July 7 that a software defect in its network is limiting data uploads from the phone in some areas, reports the Associated Press. That means it takes longer for users to send pictures, video, and other content from the phone. Apple Inc.’s new iPhone 4 went on sale in the U.S. and a few other countries two weeks ago. Last week, Apple acknowledged that holding the phone in a certain way might reduce its wireless performance, and that all iPhones show the wrong signal strength in some situations. Dallas-based AT&T said a software glitch in network equipment made by Alcatel-Lucent is to blame for limiting the upload speeds of the iPhone 4 and said a fix is in the works. Because Alcatel-Lucent isn’t the only supplier of base station equipment to AT&T, the problem only affects customers in some areas. AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said the flaw affects 2 percent of the phone company’s customer base…

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Study: U.S. mobile web use growing, but still low

When it comes to accessing the web over mobile devices, Americans are far behind their internet-connected counterparts in Japan, South Korea, and parts of Europe, reports the Associated Press. “We are a third-world country where mobile is concerned. The rest of the world is using mobile phones underground, to pay for a parking space blocks away, to buy a Coke from a vending machine,” said Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for Digital Future at the University of Southern California. “We in America are still having trouble getting our phones to [make calls].” But this is slowly changing. The latest survey from the Center for the Digital Future, conducted last year, found that 25 percent of U.S. internet users went online using their cell phones. That is up from 16 percent in 2008 and 5 percent in 2002. “The mobile phone is the single most valuable device in people’s lives,” Cole said. “It’s becoming a device you use for virtually everything.” On average, people who go online using their cell phones did so for about 2.5 hours a week in 2009, up from 1.7 hours a year earlier. For most, this means getting small spurts of information, such as getting directions or checking who won a sports game…

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Sony cuts eReader price to stay competitive

Sony has cut the prices on its electronic-book readers to keep up with competition from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, which both recently slashed prices on their own eReaders, reports the Associated Press. Sony Corp. spokeswoman Valerie Motis said that Sony last week dropped the price of its Reader Daily Edition by $50, to $300. Like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the Daily Edition can download eBooks wirelessly. Sony also lowered the price of its Reader Touch Edition by $30, to $170, and the Reader Pocket Edition by $20, to $150. Last month, Amazon cut the Kindle price by $70, to $189, just hours after Barnes & Noble reduced the Nook price by $60, to $199. Both face competition from Apple Inc.’s iPad, which starts at $499…

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‘Climategate’ inquiry mostly vindicates scientists

An independent report into the leak of hundreds of eMails from one of the world’s leading climate research centers on July 7 largely vindicated the scientists involved, saying they acted honestly and that their research was reliable, reports the Associated Press. But the panel of inquiry, led by former U.K. civil servant Muir Russell, did chide scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit for failing to share their data with critics. “We find that their rigor and honesty as scientists are not in doubt,” Russell said. “But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness.” Russell’s inquiry is the third major U.K. investigation into the theft and dissemination of more than 1,000 eMail messages taken from a back-up server at the university. They caused a sensation when they were published online in November. The stolen correspondence captured researchers speaking in scathing terms about their critics, discussing ways to stonewall skeptics of man-made climate change, and talking about how to freeze opponents out of peer-reviewed journals. The furor over the eMails fed the notion that, at worse, a closed community of climate scientists was systematically exaggerating the threat of climate change, or at least giving skeptics’ arguments the collective cold shoulder…

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Louisiana governor signs cyber-bullying law

Cyber bullying is now officially a crime in Louisiana, reports the Advocate of Baton Rouge. Gov. Bobby Jindal announced July 7 that he signed House Bill 1259 into law, along with 47 other bills from the 2010 legislative session. HB 1259 criminalizes the “transmission of any electronic textual, visual, written, or oral communication with the malicious and willful intent to coerce, abuse, torment, or intimidate a person under the age of 18.” Bullies over the age of 17 will face a maximum $500 fine and up to six months in jail; younger offenders will undergo counseling. HB 1259 was fiercely debated during the legislative session that ended last month. A compromise was reached to soften the penalties for those under the age of 17…

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Customers question tech industry’s takeover spree

Blackboard on July 7 announced plans to buy Elluminate and Wimba, both of which support online learning.

Blackboard on July 7 announced plans to buy Elluminate and Wimba, both of which support online learning.

The world’s largest technology companies have been on a buying spree, spending billions of dollars to snap up smaller companies. And often the buyers say they’re doing it for their customers—businesses, hospitals, government agencies, and schools.

As tech companies get bigger and bigger, they say, they can offer a broader variety of products and make it easier for their customers to do one-stop shopping.

Yet if you ask the customers, you hear a different story. Often they get new headaches with multibillion-dollar deals by the likes of Oracle, IBM, SAP, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard. When you add the challenges that come with any corporate acquisition, it’s not hard to envision a reverse trend eventually building: a drive to split up tech companies that have grown too large.

In other words, the tech consolidation of the past few years could turn out to have wasted shareholders’ money.

“The demand is not coming from the customers,” says Gopal Khanna, who oversees a $600 million technology budget as chief information officer for the state of Minnesota. “On the contrary, I’m best served when there’s a phenomenal amount of innovation happening. … Sometimes creating behemoths slows down that innovation engine.”

Technology companies have spent more than $350 billion buying other companies worldwide over the past three-and-a-half years, according to Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor’s.

Hewlett-Packard Co., the world’s biggest information-technology company by revenue, has been one of the most active, in a hunt for more profit in markets other than printer ink. So has Oracle Corp., which wants to sell more types of business software and now makes computer servers after its $7 billion pickup of Sun Microsystems Inc. IBM Corp. plans to drop $20 billion over the next five years on acquisitions to strengthen its services and software divisions.

Even the education-technology field has experienced a number of high-profile mergers and acquisitions, most notably involving learning management system (LMS) provider Blackboard Inc. In the latest of these deals, Blackboard on July 7 announced plans to buy Elluminate, based in Calgary, and Wimba, based in New York, both of which support online learning and collaboration through the use of web and video conferencing software. The deals would be worth a combined $116 million if approved by the boards of both companies.

Blackboard’s announcement marks the latest in a string of acquisitions for the Washington, D.C.-based company. In the last few years, Blackboard also has snatched up rivals WebCT and Angel Learning, among other companies.

In a six-page fact sheet about the deals, Blackboard said it would continue to support the products of both Elluminate and Wimba, including their compatibility with other LMS software. “We’ll honor all existing contracts for Elluminate and Wimba clients,” the company added. Employees from the two companies will be part of a new Blackboard division called Blackboard Collaborate, to be headed by Elluminate’s current president, Maurice Heiblum.

As with other technology companies involved in acquisitions, Blackboard says it wants to give customers more options, better prices, and smarter service. It’s somewhat like buying internet, cable TV, and telephone service from one company instead of three: You’ll save money by buying the bundle, and when you need things fixed you have only “one throat to choke,” in tech-industry parlance.

The flip side is that a customer accustomed to dealing with a specialty maker of software or hardware often gets worse service after that supplier is taken over.

“I’ve been dealing with the effects of these types of acquisitions for almost 30 years,” Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas, told eSchool News. “In almost every case, the acquisition has resulted in a more convoluted communication path, translating into poorer service for the end user, and a slower path of feature upgrades for the acquired property. On occasion, the product simply disappears, and the proposed upgrade path to the alternative product leaves little room for other considerations.”

Hirsch continued: “While the idea that greater scale brings greater efficiencies is widely held, the reality is that the products usually see slower development cycles and the service level declines with the acquisition. Companies acquire to eliminate competition or to move into areas of business they don’t currently service—neither of which promises to improve the customer experience.”

He concluded: “Given time, the results do often provide more resources, such as Discovery Education’s purchase of United Streaming, where the library of videos [was] greatly expanded—but the loss of a single point of contact for support, coupled with increasing costs and a lack of competitive choices, may not balance the equation for schools.”

Tech acquisitions aren’t the only ones that often go bad. A seminal study by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter examined 33 large U.S. corporations over a 36-year period and found that that they sold off many more acquisitions than they kept. Companies with acquisition strategies reduced, instead of created, shareholder value. Porter’s findings were first published in 1987, but recent studies have reinforced the conclusion.

Deals in technology can be even riskier than average, because of the complexity of the industry’s products. Although acquisitions can offer short-term financial boosts for the buyer, technology ages quickly, and acquired companies require substantial investment to keep their edge.

“When technology companies merge, you often have a two-plus-two-equals-three equation,” says Michael Cusumano, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

Undoing the poor results can be costly. VeriSign Inc. spent more than $20 billion bulking up on acquisitions in a spree that started during the dot-com days. The internet technology company got too unwieldy, and it has spent the last three years selling most of what it bought. VeriSign has gotten less than $1 billion selling off such acquisitions.

It can take years for an acquired tech company to be fully integrated with its buyer, which is one reason history is peppered with examples of acquisition flameouts that repelled customers.

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New rules bring online piracy fight to U.S. campuses

Colleges' options include limiting how much bandwidth can be consumed by peer-to-peer networking.

Colleges' options include limiting how much bandwidth can be consumed by peer-to-peer networking.

Starting this month, colleges and universities that don’t do enough to combat the illegal sharing of digital movies or music over their computer networks put themselves at risk of losing federal funding.

A provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 is making schools a reluctant ally in the entertainment industry’s campaign to stamp out unauthorized distribution of copyrighted music, movies, and TV shows.

Colleges and universities must put in place plans “to effectively combat the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material by users of the institution’s network” without hampering legitimate educational and research use, according to regulations that went into effect July 1.

That means goodbye to peer-to-peer file-sharing on a few campuses—with exceptions for gamers or open-source software junkies—as well as gentle warnings on others and extensive education programs everywhere else.

Despite initial angst about invading students’ privacy and doing the entertainment industry’s dirty work, college and university officials are largely satisfied with regulations that call for steps many of them put in place years ago.

But whether the investment of time and money will make a dent in digital piracy is uncertain.

“If the university is going to prohibit underage drinking, I think it ought to prohibit anything on the internet that’s illegal, too,” said Alicia Richardson, an Illinois State University junior who applauds her school’s restrictive policies on file-sharing. “I’m not going to mess with it. I know the consequences.”

Among other things, schools must educate their campus communities on the issue and offer legal alternatives to downloading “to the extent practicable.” Colleges and universities that don’t comply risk losing their eligibility for federal student aid…

Read the full story at eCampus News.

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Lock the gates

LockedSchoolIt seems a first-grade student recently slipped away from a Massachusetts school with the intention of walking home. Apparently, none of the school staff noticed him leaving. Fortunately, he was spotted by a police officer who returned him safely to campus. The principal said a review was underway. This isn’t a difficult fix…

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