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November 19, 2004
Next week's issue will be Web News Briefs only - as they appear in our daily blog and RSS feed - as Net Family News will be observing the US's Thanksgiving holiday. Here's our lineup for this third week of November:
- Family Tech: Kid-tested, parent-approved video games
- Other holiday gift guides
- Web News Briefs: Families shopping for tech; MPAA's 'favor' to parents; RIAA's new round; $14.95 for peace of mind?; Good idea for picture phones; Tech engages students; Tracking students; Kids checking teacher ratings; Tech to manage student data....
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Family Tech: Kid-tested, parent-approved video games
FamilyFun.com 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 this formula? 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," FamilyFun.com VP Emily Smith, herself a mother of two, told us in an interview. "But the fact remains that video games are popular, kids play them."
So they sent 28 G-rated games to more than 1,000 families, and kids had a good two weeks to play them in their own free-form way. But that important other piece of the puzzle - the testers' parents' impressions - was in there too.
"We don't ask them to sit down and watch their child play," Emily said. "We're more interested in: Did this game annoy you? Was this something you didn't mind? Were they in a good mood when they finished playing it? We're looking for fun titles, not ones that agitate or change the mood of the household.... We wanted to know what Mom and Dad might've enjoyed, not just tolerated."
And about the family dynamics too: "There was a nice comment from a father, who said that, at first, the game was a source of conflict, his kids were fighting over it," Emily said. "Then they discovered multi-player mode." Whew!
And the winners are: "Power Rangers: Dino Thunder" (for the 6-8-year-olds category) and Shrek 2 (9-to-12-year-olds). Here, too, are the year's Top 10.
But best of all: The complete reviews of all 28 games for 2004 (in case your child has put one of them on his or her holiday list). Each review includes some great individual parents' comments.
Other gift-giving resources
- Children's Software Revue - the granddaddy of this biz, founded in 1993, CSR is a quarterly magazine and Web site providing reviews (behind a subscription screen) of all interactive media for kids 0-16 (including "Parent's Videogame Advisor").
- New York Times Game Theory columnist Charles Herold's Top 10 video games (for all ages) and the Times's overall holiday gadget guide
- CommonSenseMedia.org - not a gift guide, but reviews of the latest kid-targeting games, books, sites, shows, and tunes from a parent perspective
- Consumer Reports's Holiday Giving Guide, including this nice feature: ratings of retailers' Web sites!
- The Family Education Network's Holiday Gift Guide - except not all the reviews were done this year ("Top 10 Toys" was written in 2001!)
- For tech stuff, CNET's Holiday Gift Guide, helpfully broken down by recipient (son, daughter, wife, "zany uncle," etc.) and PC Magazine's guide, including "EXTREMETECH" (gifts for geeks) and a daily gift idea.
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Web News Briefs
- 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 - via email@example.com.
- 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." The software 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 nationwide 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 free software will soon be available at the MPAA's RespectCopyrights.org, according to the trade association's press release on all of these developments.
- RIAA's new round
Meanwhile in music land, RIAA litigation keeps rolling along. This week the recording 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.
- AOL: $14.95 for peace of mind
The new, 9.0 version of AOL - launched this week - 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- Kids checking teacher ratings
...in growing numbers, apparently. We've mentioned the popular RateMyTeachers.com before. There's also RateMyProfessors.com, 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 SacRate.com (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."
- Tech to manage student data
There's ed tech about learning (above), 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).
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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!
Anne Collier, Editor
Net Family News
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