Ask.com reverts to its Q&A origins

Ask.com, which has tried with scant success to morph itself into a search engine on par with those of Google and Microsoft, is unveiling a new version of its web site that delivers questions to answers, rather than traditional search results, reports the New York Times. The site, introduced in a limited test version on July 27, is a throwback to the company’s origins, when its mascot was a dapper butler who fetched answers to questions posed by users. A few years ago, the company phased out Jeeves on its site in the United States (he later had a revival in Britain) and began to emphasize more traditional search functions based around key words and phrases. “But people never stopped coming to us with their questions,” said Doug Leeds, the president of the company. “We started out that way, and that’s what people remember.” To build out its new Q&A engine, the company says it spent the last year refining algorithms and trawling web sites like Yahoo Answers and ChaCha to index more than 500 million questions and answers. If a question isn’t in the database, users can pose it to the Ask.com community, which Leeds says numbers close to 90 million monthly users. “There are still some things that Google doesn’t do very well,” he said. “They are just trying to get you in the neighborhood of an answer. We want to deliver that answer.”

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Disney to buy social-gaming site Playdom

The Walt Disney Co. is buying online social-gaming company Playdom for $563.2 million, the latest sign the company is becoming a formidable player in the digital gaming industry, reports the Associated Press. The purchase will help bring Disney’s characters, stories, and brands to customers in new ways, through Facebook and MySpace. Playdom, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., has about 42 million monthly active users, who play games such as “Social City” and “Sorority Life.” The deal comes less than a month after Disney announced it bought Tapulous, the maker of the popular iPhone music game “Tap Tap Revenge.” And Disney bought the popular online kids hangout Club Penguin for $350 million in 2007. Disney is snapping up Playdom amid a boom for online social games, which are played for free by millions of people and make money through ads and, more importantly, sales of virtual goods for small amounts of money. The leader in the space, by far, is privately held Zynga, which boasts more than 235 million monthly users who play its “Farmville,” “Mafia Wars,” and poker games in Facebook and elsewhere online…

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Race to the Top program spurs school-reform debate

The competition rewards ambitious but controversial reforms aimed at improving struggling schools and closing the achievement gap.

The competition rewards ambitious but controversial reforms aimed at improving struggling schools and closing the achievement gap.

The U.S. Department of Education has named 18 states and the District of Columbia as finalists in the second round of the federal “Race to the Top” (RTTT) grant competition, giving them a chance to receive a share of $3.4 billion to implement broad school reforms. The July 27 announcement came just one day after a coalition of civil-rights organizations criticized the Obama administration’s approach to education reform, highlighting a growing disconnect between administration officials and critics of its education policies.

The 18 states that are finalists for the second round of RTTT grants are Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

The competition rewards ambitious but controversial reforms aimed at improving struggling schools and closing the achievement gap. Dozens of states have passed new education policies to foster charter school growth and modify teacher evaluations, hoping to make themselves more attractive to the judges.

In a speech announcing the finalists at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Education Secretary Arne Duncan said a “quiet revolution” of education reform is taking place across the country.

“It’s being driven by great educators and administrators who are challenging the defeatism and inertia that has trapped generations of children in second-rate schools,” Duncan said.

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia applied during the second round of the RTTT competition. Applications were screened by a panel of peer reviewers, and finalists will travel to Washington, D.C., in coming weeks to present their proposals.

The department expects 10 to 15 applicants ultimately will receive money, depending on whether large or small states win.

“Just as in the first round, we’re going to set a very high bar, because we know that real and meaningful change will only come from doing hard work and setting high expectations,” Duncan said.

All finalists scored higher than 400 points out of a possible 500 points in the initial evaluation. Duncan said the average score rose by 26 points between the first and second rounds.

In the past 18 months, 13 states have altered laws to foster the growth of charter schools, and 17 have reformed teacher evaluation systems to include student achievement scores, among other indicators.

Nearly 30 states have scrambled to adopt the Common Core State Standards, a state-led initiative that outlines what students should know by the time they graduate from high school, which is part of the scoring for RTTT.

New York, a finalist in the first round that did not win money, lifted its cap on the number of charter schools that can open from 200 to 460. Colorado passed laws that would pay teachers based on student performance and can strip tenure from low-performing instructors.

Georgia, a current finalist, didn’t change any laws but already had one of the most open charter policies in the country. Gov. Sonny Perdue was unsuccessful in getting performance pay for teachers passed, but lawmakers have agreed to form a study committee on the issue.

“While some have called this federal intrusion into state education policy, the goals of Race to the Top are well aligned to the direction Georgia is moving,” said Perdue, a Republican.

Two states, Tennessee and Delaware, were awarded a total of $600 million in the first round.

Their applications were praised for merit pay policies that link teacher pay to student performance and for garnering the support of teachers unions. Tennessee and Delaware also have laws that are welcoming to charter schools.

All the states that were finalists but did not win in the first round were finalists in the second round.

“Our performance in round one was a pretty strong hint that we would be a factor in round two,” said South Carolina State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex. “South Carolina is viewed as being on the cutting edge of making the changes that will make schools stronger.”

In Washington state, an applicant that was not named a finalist, state officials said they would continue ongoing education reform.

“We were committed, win or lose, to making sure we would carry out education reform our way, the Washington way,” Gov. Chris Gregoire and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said in a joint statement.

The administration’s emphasis on charter school expansion and using student test scores as leading indicators of teacher quality have put off many critics, including noted education historian Diane Ravitch.

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How to survive the school budget crisis

School budget cuts are happening across the nation, as this demonstration in New Jersey makes clear. (AP)

School budget cuts are happening across the nation, as this demonstration in New Jersey makes clear. (AP)

Times are tough, and that’s especially true for education. A survey this past spring by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) found that the school budget climate doesn’t reflect the recovery beginning to take hold in other sectors of the economy. In fact, school budget cuts will be noticeably more significant for 2010-11 than they were in the previous two years, the survey suggests.

To help school leaders in this time of need, we’ve put together a special section at eSchool News Online, called “Surviving the School Budget Crisis.” This brand-new resource features a collection of the best articles we’ve published recently that can help you save money—or spend it wisely.

For instance, schools still had at least $15 billion in formula-based stimulus money remaining to be spent as of press time—and spending this money wisely could pay dividends down the road. In our special resource center, you’ll find five key ways to make smart education technology investments that will have a lasting impact for your schools.

You’ll also learn how more schools and colleges are turning to unified communications as a way to streamline communication and save much-needed cash in these volatile times. And you’ll discover several other strategies for saving school budgets during a recession—such as buying from large group contracts, aligning budgets with school improvement plans, starting an educational foundation, and mastering the art of passing school bond issues.

Successful bond campaigns begin with a vision, said Carleton R. Holt, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Arkansas, during a recent AASA conference. And the local school board’s decision to issue a bond must be unanimous; if even one board member opposes the motion, he said, that could sow the seeds of doubt among stakeholders.

Recruiting an active citizens group to support the bond measure also is a key to success. “Play it like the Amway model,” Holt said, meaning superintendents should let members of the community sell others on the idea.

For more advice from Holt, as well as other strategies and solutions for surviving the school budget crisis, click here.

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MimioVote assessment system

MimioProductShowcase150x150What if your assessment tool solved problems, instead of creating them? The MimioVote™ assessment system from DYMO has a unique, patent-pending design that’s much easier and more intuitive for both you and your students.

Four flexible options simplify creating both custom and standardized assessments:

  • Use the MimioVote question templates to create custom items quickly and easily.
  • Create custom tests using Microsoft PowerPoint.
  • Import state assessment or publishers’ question banks into MimioStudio™ software.
  • Ask oral questions on the fly, anytime.

Choose teacher-led or self-paced assessments. Either way, students submit answers on their wireless handsets and the data are transmitted instantly to your computer. Handset response buttons light up automatically to match the questions. Five distinct buttons are available for multiple-choice questions (A, B, C, D, E), plus there are two separate buttons (a checkmark and an X) for true/false statements or yes/no questions. Only the appropriate buttons light up for each question.

MimioStudio software keeps a running tally of scores for both the entire class and individual students. Final results are stored in the MimioStudio Gradebook, where they can be reviewed, modified, or downloaded into spreadsheets. Only DYMO makes assessment so easy for you and your students. http://mimio.dymo.com/new65

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In ruling on iPhones, Apple loses a bit of its grip

Apple likes to maintain tight control over what programs can appear on the iPhone–a task that just became a little bit harder, reports the New York Times: The Library of Congress, which has the power to define exceptions to an important copyright law, said on July 26 that it was legal for users to bypass a phone’s controls on what software it will run to get “lawfully obtained” programs to work. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group, had asked for that exception to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to allow the so-called “jailbreaking” of iPhones and other devices. “This is a really important victory for iPhone owners,” said Corynne McSherry, a senior staff lawyer with the foundation. “People who want to tinker with their phones and move outside of the Applesphere now have the ability to legally do that.” The issue has been a topic of debate between Apple, which says it has the right to control the software on its devices, and technically adept users who want to customize their phones as they see fit. In a legal filing last year with the United States Copyright Office, which is part of the Library of Congress, Apple argued that altered phones infringed on its copyrights because they used modified versions of Apple’s operating system. Apple also said that altering the phones encouraged the pirating of applications, exposed iPhones to security risks, and taxed the company’s customer support staff. But iPhone hobbyists say they simply want to have free range to use certain features and programs on their phones that Apple has limited or failed to offer…

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NCLB: Are the fixes worse than the flaws?

Parents and teachers don’t like it. For many students, it has failed to produce the promised benefits. And experts agree it urgently needs to be fixed. But as controversial as No Child Left Behind is, there is perhaps even more controversy about how to fix it, CTmirror.com reports. For some Connecticut officials, in fact, this fresh debate over federal education policy looks like a choice between bad and worse. The Obama administration in March unveiled a “Blueprint for Reform” that outlined sweeping changes to the law, including, among other things, scrapping No Child’s 2014 deadline for all public school students to reach proficiency in math and reading in favor of making them “college- and career-ready” by the time they finish high school. But critics say the White House’s proposed fix, even if it solves some issues, could also create a new set of problems. “It’s just not a good fit for Connecticut,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who sits on the House Education and Labor Committee. Courtney ticked off several problems he has with the White House proposal, starting with the administration’s move to make competitive grants a more permanent feature of federal education funding. Courtney and others fear that such a shift could translate into a significant disadvantage for Connecticut, which has more than 160 local education agencies–one for nearly every town or city in the state–instead of larger, county-wide school districts, as many other states have. “The notion that towns could engage in competitive grants” is not tenable, Courtney said. The town of Union, for example, with its 700 or so residents, would not be playing on a level field against Broward County, Fla., population 1.6 million…

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B-schools all a-Twitter over social media

With interest in social media growing, B-schools are adding courses to teach students what it means for business, BusinessWeek reports. Harvard Business School and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business have joined a growing list of business schools that are adding courses on social media to their MBA curricula, addressing the corporate demand for social-network-savvy employees. The two schools are among at least six that have added courses in the past year that allow students to learn about internet marketing and social media strategy, according to course syllabi and faculty associated with the classes. With Twitter’s social networking site claiming 190 million users tweeting 65 million times a day, and Facebook reporting 500 million active members, companies including Sears Holdings, Panasonic, Citigroup, and AT&T have begun hiring social media directors to develop and manage marketing strategies that address the nuances of the online world. Social media classes are one way of preparing students for careers in a promising field, says John Gallaugher, associate professor of information systems at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, where “Social Media & Web 2.0 for Managers” is being offered in the fall. “In the realm of technology it’s possible for us to teach our students a tool that their bosses don’t have, and they can provide that added value from day one,” Gallaugher says. “Social media skills are the ones that can set them apart. Those are the skills that employers are looking for.”

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Memo details costly perks and gifts for HISD employees

A recently released memo from the Houston Independent School District’s outside law firm details for the first time the gift-giving allegations that landed the district in trouble with the U.S. Department of Justice, costing taxpayers an $850,000 fine and students tens of millions of dollars in technology at their schools, reports the Houston Chronicle. The department accused HISD of violating competitive-bidding rules–arguing that the elaborate freebies could influence who got contracts–and in 2006 froze the district’s access to federal funding through the e-Rate program. HISD Superintendent Terry Grier finally settled the case with the federal government in March and, as part of the deal, hired a new high-level compliance officer to monitor questionable conflicts, gifts, and favoritism related to the e-Rate. The federal e-Rate program, which is funded by fees from telephone users, allows schools to apply for funding for discounted hardware and internet access. Richard Patton, HISD’s e-Rate compliance officer, said the district has tightened its policies to forbid employees from accepting any gifts from e-Rate vendors and to require them to report any offers. “There is no tolerance,” said Patton, whose annual salary is $150,000. No HISD employees have faced criminal indictments over the allegations. A similar but apparently more extensive scheme in Dallas ISD resulted in criminal convictions of that district’s former technology chief, Ruben Bohuchot, and a Houston-based business owner, Frankie Wong. Both are now in federal prison on bribery and money-laundering charges after evidence showed that Bohuchot had shared inside information to help Wong’s company, Micro Systems Engineering, land e-Rate contracts in Dallas…

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iPad is changing what’s in a campus store

A recent article in Fortune magazine warns that universities should hate the iPad, because it will infringe on profits in the campus store. But students began changing their campus store habits long before the iPad came onto the market, WalletPop reports. For example, the University of California, San Diego, is going the other way: Its campus store stocks not only textbooks and collegiate gear, but runs a green grocer, a convenience store, sells computers and iPads, and does computer repair. Owing to the ever-increasing costs of textbooks and the availability of auctions and textbook rentals, students have been shunning the practice of buying books on campus in favor of cheaper options. Indeed, some colleges, including Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., have eliminated books from their campus stores. Wesleyan made the decision to save its limited space and open an online bookstore instead through MBS Direct. The campus store sells stationery, art supplies, spirit wear, and some room decor items. MBS Direct, one of the online companies that is changing the landscape of the campus store, partners with schools to allow them to continue to profit from book sales without ever having to touch a textbook. And iPads are creating the next stage of evolution at the campus store…

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