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Friday, November 19, 2004

Kid-tested, parent-approved video games gets it. What better way to test video games than in their natural habitat: homes! And who could be a more credible tester than a kid (with Mom or Dad playing fly-on-the-wall)?

It's a formula that Children's Software Revue has used successfully for years, and this year Disney's Family Fun used it to build on its daycare-center-tested toy awards and produce its first-annual, home-tested Video Game of the Year awards. Why? Parents are kind of stuck: "With all this noise about Grand Theft Auto [and Halo 2 last week!], most of us feel somewhat ambivalent about video games," VP Emily Smith, herself a mother of two, told me in a phone interview. "But the fact remains that video games are popular, kids play them!" For more on this - as well as other holiday gift resources on the Web - please see the latest issue of my newsletter.

Tracking students with tech

Whether they're mere photo IDs students wear, fancy ones with computer chips, or digital IDs to plug into computers, tracking students is a growing phenomenon - as well as public debate. In Poplar Bluff in southeastern Missouri, many of the 1,300 students in that town's high school are upset about having to wear ID cards to school every day, and there isn't even any technology involved, the Christian Science Monitor reports. In Spring, Texas, north of Houston, the school system has spent $180,000 on a system of computerized ID badges for 28,000 students whose badges are scanned when they got on and off schoolbuses. "The information is fed automatically by wireless phone to the police and school administrators," the New York Times reports. And with the help of AOL and VeriSign, an Internet safety organization called i-Safe plans nationwide distribution to schools of small plastic "sticks" that plug into PCs and verify a student's ID when s/he's online, ZDNET reports. The efforts have both supporters (mostly school officials and parents) and critics (consumer-privacy and civil-liberties organizations), and the technologies have their glitches, but "in the long run," the Times reports, "the biggest problem may be human error. Parents, teachers and administrators said their primary worry is getting students to remember their cards, given they often forget such basics as backpacks, lunch money and gym shoes. And then there might be mischief: students could trade their cards." That last is privacy advocates' greatest concern: students' information getting in the wrong hands. If any of you have experience with or reactions to this, do tell!

From movies to music

They're piling on this week. On top of the MPAA's first lawsuits against file-sharers came the RIAA's lastest round. Thdrecording industry trade association sued 761 more file-sharers, the Associated Press reports. Among them are 25 people suspected of using university networks to file-share. The students attend Amherst College, Boston College, Bridgewater State, Iowa State, Northeastern, and the University of Massachusetts, the schools themselves were not sued.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

AOL: $14.95 for peace of mind?

The new, 9.0 version of AOL - launched today - is all about PC security, and it may in fact be one of the best options for less-than-tech-literate parents not blessed with in-house, kid tech support. I'm saying this because, at my son's hockey practice the other day, another mom told me her family's connected to the Net, but they hardly ever use their computer because it keeps getting viruses (she didn't know what a firewall was and they didn't have anti-virus software installed - I was glad I could help out). AOL 9.0 "includes McAfee VirusScan Online, AOL Spyware Protection, antispam control and a system to thwart instant-messaging spam (or 'spim')," CNET reports - plus the firewall, pop-up controls, parental controls, and alerts for unauthorized bank and credit card activity that were available to AOL subscribers before. That's all included in dialup customers' $23.95/month service and in the $14.95 "bring your own access" (BYOA) service for customers who want to use a different broadband Internet provider. Which all boils down to $14.95 for peace of mind when you just want to get on with using the Net!

Families shopping for tech

Twenty-year-old Dan Auriemma got his grandmother a cable modem for Christmas so she could move beyond her pokey dialup connection, reports the New York Times - apparently exactly what she needs. But that's unusual, so many of us know. Matching tech gifts to loved ones of different generations is tough, and it's the younger generation, such as Dan's, that's more likely to get it right. Even so, "76% of Americans plan to give a tech gift this season," says the Times, citing a Consumer Electronics Association survey. In our family, it's hard enough for us to buy gifts for our kids, much less tell grandparents, uncles, and aunts what they'd like a month from now. Wish lists are moving targets, so it's better to look at the History file on the PC our kids use to find out where interests lie from day to day. At no time is the *other* digital divide more apparent than in this season. The Times's John Schwartz describes how differently the generations use tech: "Youngsters live in a high-tech bubble, moving from screen to screen throughout their day and typing and clicking and virtually breathing bits. Their parents (my crowd, if you will), having seen computers become personal in their lifetimes, tend to have a working relationship with technology that doesn't necessarily involve the same all-encompassing embrace." Grandparents, he says, tend to view tech more in terms of toys of the tech sort (some with yet another annoyingly complicated set of instructions to remember) than as complementary means to ends - means to be used all at once. Whether or not this is the case in your family, John's piece is great context for families' tech-shopping dilemmas this year. BTW, I'd love to hear from you about the holiday shopping dynamics in your family.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Good idea for picture phones

A UK privacy-rights organization is recommending to cell-phone makers that they make flash standard on all phones, the BBC reports. Privacy International says that camera phones make it a lot easier to take illicit photos without permission - a threat to people's privacy, especially children's. So if a flash accompanies every picture taken with a phone, subject will always know their photo's been taken. If phone makers would adopt this idea, it would save a lot of schools and sports and fitness facilities from banning pictures phones altogether. But they've shown resistance. "In South Korea," the BBC adds, "one of the most advanced mobile phones markets in the world, the government recommended that mobiles phones should produce a loud sound when used to take a picture. The government also considered the use of a default flash, but plans were abandoned after concerns from manufacturers." For an example of where picture phones can intersect with bullying see "Cyberbullying: Parenting problem" in my 5/14 issue.

MPAA's 'favor' to parents

To enlist parents' help in discouraging kids' file-sharing, the film industry will offer free software that detects "P2P files," CNET reports. The Register goes a bit far in its assessment that the Motion Picture Association of America's move "is designed to split families right down the middle. The MPAA hopes that new software will encourage parents to turn their children over to the authorities as file-sharing felons." As for the software, it won't delete, just scan for and find music, movies, and P2P software like Kazaa's, Grokster's, and eDonkey's on a PC's hard drive.

Along with the free software, the MPAA announced it had filed about 200 lawsuits against file-sharers across the US this week. Unlike the approach of the record industry (RIAA), which goes after people who share hundreds, sometimes thousands, of music files, the MPAA is, in some cases, suing people who shared a single movie, according to the Washington Post in its roundup of news stories on this. However, the single-movie-sharers sued are those who distributed a film before it was released in theaters. The Guardian reports that "individuals could be liable for $30,000 (£16,000) for each traded file, and up to $150,000 (£80,000) per downloaded film, if the download was willfully done." The anti-P2P software will soon be available at the MPAA's, according to the trade association's press release on all of these developments.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Tech 'Big Brother' for schools

There's ed tech about learning (see post just below), then there's ed tech about monitoring. The latter, it appears could be good news and bad news. An example of the tracking sort of technology is NetInterlink, which manages all the student data schools gather. It sounds like it could turn schools into social services' best friend. According to the Washington Post, "the program helps schools determine what resources are allocated to each student by tracking which teachers they work with, their grades and standardized test scores, their attendance records, and their financial status, which determines eligibility for subsidized meal programs." It links one school's data to others', so superintendents can get an overview on how well a district is showing up in No Child Left Behind Act terms. NetInterlink says the software was developed with a lot of practical teacher input. The 10-person software company is planning for rapid growth and take-up by US schools (from $2.2m in projected sales this year to $10m in five years).

Tech engages students: Study

In its 2004 survey, the National School Boards Association recently took a look at technology in US classrooms and found that, besides the usual suspect (funding), the biggest challenge facing school districts in the technology area was integrating tech into the classroom. Funding was the toughest for 47.2%, and integrating tech into day-to-day learning was a challenge for 45.7% of districts. But it looks like schools are determined to beat the latter, because 88.5% of districts reported that the use of tech in the classroom increased educational opportunities for their students. When asked how technology had improved those opportunities, 80.4% said students were "more engaged in learning" when tech was in the classroom. Only 16% of districts said that proving that there were benefits for student learning success was a challenge. Our thanks to TechLearning News for pointing out these findings.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Kids checking teacher ratings growing numbers, apparently. I've mentioned the popular before. There's also, drawing "roughly 1 million visitors a month" who scan listings for more than 400,000 professors at 4,000 schools and post their own opinions," the Sacramento Bee reports. The paper evaluations which get handed out at the end of a course and which the Bee says get about a 90% return rate are probably more representative than the online versions, where students are more likely to go if they have a beef. Faculty members generally dislike sites like RateMyProfessors and (the former's founder told the Bee he frequently gets lawsuit threats from professors maligned in the rating site), but the ones who don't mind them so much say even the detractors probably secretly check their ratings. Rating sites are increasingly popular even among adults. The Bee cites a recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project finding that 26% adult Net users - about 33 million Americans, have rated a product, service or person in a Web site. The biggest raters are 18-to 27-year-olds."