Microsoft offers free cloud-based Office software for schools

With the announcement, Microsoft could strike a blow against Google, which has offered a similar suite of free online tools for schools.

In a back-to-school move that could be the large company equivalent of distinguishing who has the cooler Trapper Keeper, Microsoft has released a free version of Office 365 for education, a cloud-based suite of tools that includes Office applications such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, as well as Exchange Online for eMail, SharePoint Online for collaborating, and more—rivaling Google’s education cloud.

Office 365, which Microsoft introduced last year, now is available free of charge to students, teachers, and faculty, the company said. Upgraded packages are available for a fee, including unlimited eMail storage, archiving, and hosted voice mail support.

With the announcement, Microsoft likely aims to strike a blow against Google, which has offered a similar suite of free online tools for schools. Google Apps for Education have been adopted statewide in Oregon, Iowa, and Colorado, among other states, as a means of enabling students and teachers to share documents and collaborate on projects online.

According to Anthony Salcito, vice president of education for Microsoft’s Worldwide Public Sector business, whom eSchool News interviewed during the 2012 International Society for Technology in Education conference in San Diego, Office 365 is building off of Live@edu as the “next evolution” to provide a better experience for communication, collaboration, and productivity.

“We’re combining the security and richness of Microsoft with what the cloud can do natively,” said Salcito in the interview. “The cloud and online learning are key trends and opportunities to transform education today, and as schools face shrinking budgets and the pressure to innovate, we’re offering enterprise-quality technology for free that will modernize teaching practices and help prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow.”

Live@edu, which also was free to schools, included access to Office Live Workspace, a service for storing and sharing documents online. Certain functionalities were tied to a browser plug-in called Silverlight, though, which reduced the portability of the service when compared to other providers.

To access Live@edu workspaces directly from Office applications, users had to install an Office Live Update. Files couldn’t be edited from within a workspace, but clicking on “edit” would open them up in Microsoft Office.

In comparison, Office 365 offers a more robust computing experience, Salcito said. Giving students access to many Office-grade tools free of charge will allow them to use the tools so many companies use today, he said—providing them a “leg up” in the job market.

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Peru’s ambitious laptop program gets mixed grades

Negroponte plans to parachute tablet computers from helicopters, limiting the involvement of adults and educators.

Peru’s equipping of more than 800,000 public schoolchildren in this rugged Andean nation with low-cost laptops ranks among the world’s most ambitious efforts to leverage digital technology in the fight against poverty.

Yet five years in, there are serious doubts about whether the largest single deployment in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative inspired by MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte was worth the more than $200 million that Peru’s government spent.

Ill-prepared rural teachers and administrators were too often unable to fathom–much less teach–with the machines, software bugs didn’t get fixed, internet access was almost universally absent and cultural disconnects kept kids from benefitting from the machines.

“In essence, what we did was deliver the computers without preparing the teachers,” said Sandro Marcone, the Peruvian education official who now runs the program.

He believes the missteps may have actually widened the gap between children able to benefit from the computers and those ill-equipped to do so, he says, in a country whose public education system is rated among the world’s most deficient.

The volume of “education” computers delivered globally remains modest. Intel Corp. says it has shipped more than 7 million, about a third in Argentina. Venezuela boasts 1.6 million distributed, licensed by a Portuguese company.

Negroponte’s nonprofit OLPC foundation, which pioneered the idea of bootstrapping the developing world with information technology, was never able to achieve the $100 laptop price tag it desired but nevertheless won adherents.

More than 2.5 million of its $200 laptops, not just the green-and-white models for the early grades but also blue-and-white machines with bigger keyboards for older kids, have been distributed in 46 countries since 2007.

OLPC laptops, which are rugged and energy efficient and run an open-source variant of the Linux operating system, are in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mongolia and Haiti, and even in the United States and Australia. Uruguay, a compact South American nation of 3.5 million people, is the only country that has fully embraced the concept and given every elementary school child and teacher an XO laptop, as the machines are called.

No country, however, bought nearly as many as Peru.

“It’s a really great idea,” said Jeff Patzer, a software engineer with a degree from the University of California at Berkeley who traveled from school to school in Peru’s rustic Cordillera Blanca highlands in 2010 introducing and maintaining the laptops. “It just seems like there was some stuff that wasn’t thought through quite enough.”

Inter-American Development Bank researchers were less polite.

“There is little solid evidence regarding the effectiveness of this program,” they said in a study sharply critical of the overall OLPC initiative that was based on a 15-month study at 319 schools in small, rural Peruvian communities that got laptops.

“The magical thinking that mere technology is enough to spur change, to improve learning, is what this study categorically disproves,” co-author Eugenio Severin of Chile told the Associated Press.

The study found no increased math or language skills, no improvement in classroom instruction quality, no boost in time spent on homework, no improvement in reading habits.

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Kindergarten career test in the works by ACT

A new digital tool to test academic and behavioral skills will target students starting in kindergarten, the Associated Press reports. ACT, the organization that developed the ACT college-entrance exam, will start testing the tool in the fall. It will be available to schools starting in 2014.The tool tracks students’ career interests, academic performance and progress toward goals. It’s designed to follow students from kindergarten through high school. Jon Erickson, president of ACT’s education division, said the goal is to identify and address gaps in skills needed for college and the workforce. The assessment combines traditional testing with teacher-led projects to generate an instant, digital score…

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Arizona districts required to monitor online activities

Beginning this week, school districts in Arizona are required to teach cyberbullying awareness and monitor online chats and social media in schools, in keeping with a bolstered Children’s Internet Protection Act, the Arizona Republic reports. Several school boards have revised their decades-old policies regarding Internet safety, and in turn receive discounts of up to 90 percent on their telecommunication bills. Mesa Public Schools, which at 64,000 students represents the largest district in the state, is mandating that students attend anti-bullying awareness classes, which include rules against harassing students online and at school. Mesa Public Schools will spend $2.8 million on Internet access and telecommunications, which represents a 75-percent discount for compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act. According to Mel Van Patten of Oklahoma-based Kellogg & Sovereign Consulting, the decreased cost could mean the difference between smaller districts having internet access or not

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Doing apps and start-ups while still in high school

Like many young entrepreneurs here in Silicon Valley, Matthew Slipper knows that success does not come easy. His first start-up, an online education venture, flopped. His second, a video-sharing app for the iPhone, has sold only 20 copies, the New York Times reports. The Paly Entrepreneurs Club is the brainchild of about a dozen students committed to inventing the future. But Mr. Slipper is optimistic. He should be. He’s just 18, a founding member of the Paly Entrepreneurs Club, an extracurricular group at the local high school that sprang into existence last September — the brainchild of about a dozen students committed to inventing the future.

“I want to build something that is tied to what is happening next,” he said.

While budding moguls in high school clubs like the Future Business Leaders of America invest make-believe money in the stock market or study the principles of accounting, the Entrepreneurs Club members have a distinctly Silicon Valley flavor: they want to create start-ups…

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July 4th facts on flags, fireworks, food and more

If you are at all curious about what country manufactures American flags and the fireworks that we light on July 4th, and/or where your Independence Day BBQ food comes from, you can thank our trusty U.S. Census Bureau for providing the answers, the Washington Post reports. The following comes from the bureau:

On this day in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress, setting the 13 colonies on the road to freedom as a sovereign nation. As always, this most American of holidays will be marked by parades, fireworks and backyard barbecues across the country…

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Study: More than 1 in 4 teens have ‘sexted’

A new survey of hundreds of high school students in the Houston area finds that 28 percent have “sexted” — sent a naked photo of themselves through email or cell-phone texting. And more than half said they’d been asked to send someone else a naked photo, HealthDay reports. Boys were more likely than girls to ask for naked photos, and girls were more likely to be asked to send a photo, the survey found. Touted as the most advanced research on sexting in the United States, the survey does have limitations: The group of students surveyed had a higher rate of ethnic minorities than in American public schools overall, and only those whose parents agreed were allowed to answer the questions. Still, the findings suggest that sexting, the practice of sending explicit material or information via texting, “is a fairly prevalent behavior among teens,” said study lead author Jeff R. Temple, a psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. “And teens who engage in sexting behaviors may be more likely to have had sex. In other words, sexting may be a fairly reliable indicator of sexual behaviors.”

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Testing mandates flunk cost-benefit analysis

According to Wikipedia, cost–benefit analysis “is a systematic process for calculating and comparing benefits and costs of a project, decision or government policy (hereafter, ‘project’). CBA has two purposes, says Peter Smagorinsky, distinguished research professor of English education at the University of Georgia, for the Washington Post:

1.To determine if it is a sound investment/decision (justification/feasibility),

2.To provide a basis for comparing projects. It involves comparing the total expected cost of each option against the total expected benefits, to see whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and by how much.”

I believe that it would be prudent to apply this process to the current accountability movement now being administered in public education, primarily in the form of testing mandates such as No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top. Although I am not an economist — I’m an old high school English teacher now engaged in teacher education at the university level — I believe that I understand the issues at stake as well as anyone currently employed in the U.S. Department of Education…

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1 million signatures delivered asking Congress to do more than low interest rates

Congress may have a deal on extending the discounted interest rate on federal student loans, but there are a million people who want them to go further, the Huffington Post reports. Robert Applebaum, a former assistant district attorney from New York, delivered 1 million signatures Thursday from his petition for Congress to pass H.R. 4170, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, at the House side of the Capitol. He was joined by the bill’s author, Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.), Tony Mitchell, Jr., Congressional Liaison of the National Black Law Students Association, and Getachew Kassa, who is Legislative Director for the U.S. Student Association. About 20 students and college graduates and Occupy Colleges activists also joined the group.

Their argument: forgiving student debt would fix the economy.

“Forgiving student loan debt would have an immediate stimulating effect on the economy,” Applebaum argued. “Responsible people who did nothing other than pursue a higher education would have hundreds, if not thousands of extra dollars per month to spend, fueling the economy now.”

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Bullied school bus monitor ‘fine’ with bully punishment

The upstate New York school bus monitor who was bullied by four seventh-graders says she’s satisfied that they’re being suspended for a year, the Associated Press reports. Speaking one day after the boys’ punishment was announced, Karen Klein told The Associated Press on Saturday that she wants to meet with the boys who tormented her.

“Oh yes, I would like to talk to them!” said the 68-year-old, speaking from her home in Rochester. “I want to ask them why they did it.”

What the four boys did was captured on video, mercilessly taunting Klein as she sat on the bus, gradually breaking down in tears. On Friday, the school system in the Rochester suburb of Greece suspended the four middle school students for a year, keeping them from regular bus transportation. How does Klein feel about this punishment?

“It’s fine with me,” she told the AP…

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