Reach voters via school websites

About a year ago, the head of curriculum and instruction for a southern state invited me at the behest of the education commissioner to share my website resources with all the schools in the state.  Attached to the invitation was a list of websites of every publicly owned educational institution in the state.

It was a long list.website button

I probably looked at websites for a several hundred high schools. A surprising number still were using .org domain names, instead of the now-standard public education domain names.

Even more surprising, most of the school websites appeared to have been designed for only the school community. Some of the websites consisted primarily of teacher or class webpages listing assignments and due  dates—not information people outside the school community want to know.

Many websites consisted primarily lists of telephone contacts, helpful to those who already knew to whom they wished to  speak, but not helpful to someone who wanted to know, for example, who to contact about renting the school gymnasium for  a community event.

A handful of the school websites contained almost nothing but links to pdfs. The pdfs probably fulfill legal requirements to  provide information, but they are not convenient for, or generally comprehensible, by the public.

Nationally, 70 percent or more of the public has no children in the school district. That group includes people who are most likely to vote. It is short-sighted, if not downright self-destructive, for schools not to provide information on their sites  in forms that are clear and convenient to those likely voters.

Illustration credit: Blue Website Buttons 2 1 by LegendsWeb

Google’s privacy policy and schools

Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.
Supreme Court, Washington D.C.

As you are probably aware, Google is changing its privacy policy March 1. If you or your school use any of Google’s 60 applications—from g-mail to YouTube—or visit sites that use Google service, the changes will affect you.

By agreeing to Google’s new privacy policy, you allow Google to combine all the data it has about you and mine that data. You also agree to let Google turn over that information to any government agency that asks for it.

Getting rid of all Google services by March 1—the date the company’s new privacy policy goes into effect—would be a nightmare. And the alternative to accepting Google’s privacy policy is to not use any of its services.

Europeans are not happy with Google’s proposed policy. They know what can happen when a government gains access to data about citizens held by private organizations. They saw it in the old Soviet Union, in Nazi Germany, and they see it today as government-sponsored terrorists assassinate relatives of their political opponents continents away.

Schools silent on privacy policy implications

Aside from newspapers and a handful in the Congress, Americans don’t seem a bit bothered by the new policy. Schools are notably silent on the topic, although the potential ramifications of this move for schools is enormous.

Schools are pushing for teachers to use Google documents, Google Voice, YouTube, Google Scholar. They show teachers how to use class Gmail accounts to get students access to websites and use blogger to set up their own accounts.

I  hadn’t paid much attention to the implications of the privacy policies I signed, either. It was not until I clicked a link on Twitter and got a message from Google thanking me for joining YouTube that I realized where the policy change could lead.

My local school district uses a Google site as its website. By setting up a Google site, the school board signed a contract with Google. That contract gave Google the right to:

access, preserve, and disclose your account information and any Content associated with that account if required to do so by law or in a good faith belief that such access preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to:
(a) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request,
(b) enforce the Terms, including investigation of potential violations hereof,
(c) detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues (including, without limitation, the filtering of spam), or
(d) protect against imminent harm to the rights, property or safety of Google, its users or the public as required or permitted by law. [italics added]

Google doesn’t say it will turn over documents in response to a legally executed search warrant. All an agency has to do is ask.  And Google doesn’t have to notify you that you are the object of a search. In effect, by using a Google service you waive your Constitutional right to protection from unlawful search and seizure.

I don’t know whether anyone on my local school board read—really read—the contract the school signed. They should have, but I suspect no one did any more than I did when I signed up for a host of Google services.

The real question is, what do we do now?

Petition for a delay in policy implementation

I am not unaware of the irony of posting this tirade on blogger, a Google service. However, given how little notice Google gave of the policy change, I’d have to do nothing but replace Google services for the next 10 days in the hope of meeting the March 1 deadline. So I’ve done the one thing I could do immediately: I’ve signed a petition asking for a delay in  putting the policy into effect, giving more time for consideration of the ramifications of the policy.

More information 

CNN: Google knows too much about you

The Washington PostGoogle privacy policy: Who will be affected and how you can choose what information gets shared

The Daily Mail (UK) ‘Google will know more about you than your partner’: Uproar as search giant reveals privacy policy that will allow them to track you on all their products

Forbes: Google’s New Privacy Policy: When Consumers’ Worlds Collide, the Company Stands to Profit

New York Times: F.T.C. Tells Consumer Watchdog to Mind Its Own Business

Photo Credit: U.S. Supreme Court, Washington, DC uploaded by davidlat  http://www.sxc.hu/photo/657696

[Note: After this post was uploaded, I moved the blog to wordpress and closed all my Google accounts.]

White space may bridge digital divide

A one-two punch from geography and economic conditions all too frequently put rural students on the wrong site of the digital divide. I’ve written before about the difficulties students in my rural corner of New York State would have getting on the Internet if they don’t have an ISP at home.

A broadband technology is emerging that may offer some hope.

In December the Federal Communications Commission approved technology that allows Internet signals to be carried wirelessly in what is called white space, the  spectrum between television stations. The FCC approval takes effect Jan. 26.

Signals in this band travel better than WiFi because the signal isn’t impeded by physical structures such as buildings, trees, or mountains.

Thanks to the FCC decision, the medium will be accessible to small networking firms as well as to unlicensed and experimental users.

The white space signal must originate from fiber optic lines serving cell towers. Providers would have to reach agreement with the local cell carrier for use of the fiber optic cables to bring the signal into an area before the providers could deliver the signal to the customer’s location. (See the diagram at Mashable.com)

The FCC says unleasing the white spaces spectrum will provide a massive economic boost to businesses and result in new jobs being created.

One of the first locations to carry signals in white space is to be Thurman in the Adirondack Park, where Chestertown-based Rainmaker Network Service, LLC plans to test the technology later this year.

Interest in the new technology is high. Officials from other rural municipalities turned up in Thurman Jan. 25 to learn about the prospects and costs of the program..

Having Internet service available wouldn’t necessarily make it affordable for students in economically depressed rural areas, but it would at least remove one of the multiple barriers to rural student ‘net access.

Photo credit: House at the Hill uploaded by  iprole

Poor showing by local school districts

Annually since 1992 Business First, a Buffalo-based business publication, has examined raw data in the form of test scores compiled by the state Department of Education to determine the best performing schools in upstate New York. In the data released Oct. 27,  Pittsford Central School District in suburban Rochester earned the highest score among 431 upstate New York districts.

I was curious as to how schools in my predominately rural area performed. Only one district appeared in the top quarter of the list; most are in the bottom half.

According to the Business First list, these are the rankings for districts in Chenango, Delaware and Otsego counties:

Chenango County
84. Greene
248. Bainbridge-Guilford
249. Norwich 
333. Sherburne-Earlville
337. Georgetown-South Otselic
356. Unadilla Valley 
373. Oxford Academy
401. Afton

Otsego County
129. Oneonta
182. Milford
198. Worcester
182. Milford
198. Worcester
223. Gilbertsville-Mount Upton
261. Morris
279. Unatego
298. Laurens
299. Edmeston
318. Richfield Springs
319. Schenevus
346. Cherry Valley-Springfield

Delaware County
130. Delhi
240. Margaretville
252. Downsville
330. Stamford
362. Roxbury
377. Charlotte Valley
385. Hancock 
388. Sidney
409. Walton
(Franklin Central School District was not on the list.)

Education equity in Web 2.0 era

As education leaders were debating policies for empowering Web 2.0 schools earlier this month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT Data Center released its 2011 report  looking at the educational, social, economic, and physical well-being of America’s children on state-by-state as well as a national basis.

The data should be disturbing to anyone who is involved in education:

  • 20% of children in the US live in poverty.
  • 31% of children in the US live in families in which no parent has full-time, year-round employment.
  • 34% of children in the US live in single-parent families.

What do those figures mean for schools? They mean that:

  • There are kids who will not be able to bring their PDs to school regardless of the school policy on PDs for the simple reason their families cannot afford personal devices such as laptops, Blackberries and iPads.
  • There are kids for whom the question of sending their teacher a friend request will not arise because they have no place to access Facebook. Public internet access is not as widely available as many people seem to think.
  • There are parents who won’t use the school’s website to access their children’s homework assignments because they don’t have a computer to use even if they know how to use a computer.

If learning is not confined to physical spaces like schools, perhaps instead of putting all our energies into discussing technology policies to empower Web 2.0 schools, we ought to put some energy into thinking about how to provide equitable access to education resources beyond the confines of schools.

Resourcefulness in the Web 2.0 world

A group of teachers were discussing options available to students who didn’t have internet access at home.  One teacher said teachers should treat access issues as a means of promoting resourcefulness. Kids could just go to the public library or to someplace with wireless access.

I decided to test how well that theory would work in the rural school district in which I live.

Bainbridge-Guilford CSD is primarily in Chenango County, NY. BG takes in small bits of two other counties: Delaware County, across the Susquehanna River, and Otsego County a few miles to the northeast.

For the sake of making things easy to follow, let’s say BG 11th grade social studies student Terry Nonet is assigned a team project on Monday that’s due the following Monday. It requires students to divvy up online research and put their findings in a Google doc.

Terry is in luck. He has a week to work on his project. He’d have been in trouble if he had one or more online assignments to do overnight. With a week to arrange to get Internet access, he may be able to complete the assignment.

The Bainbridge Free Library has four public access computers, available for one hour on a first-come, first-served basis. The library is open several times when Terry could go there outside of school hours:

  • Monday: 1 pm-5 pm; 6 pm-9 pm
  • Tuesday: 1 pm-6 pm
  • Thursday: 1 pm-5 pm; 6 pm-9 pm

Terry ought to be able to get to the library even if it’s 20 miles from his home and his family has only one car which his mom needs to go to her minimum-wage job in Norwich. Terry might have to miss work or leave his younger siblings unsupervised after school in order to do his social studies project, but meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

Terry has another possibility.

The Chenango County Public Transit system stop in Bainbridge is just three blocks from BG High School. For a buck, Terry could hop a bus after school (there’s one that leaves Bainbridge at 4:30 pm) and go to Sidney where the Sidney Memorial Public Library has six public access computers available one hour per day to anyone with a fine-free library card.

The Sidney library is open until 8:30 pm so even if Terry has to wait for a computer, he ought be able to get access for an hour. If he needs more time, he could hike out to Kmart and use the public access computers there. It’s about a two-mile walk from the library to Kmart, but Terry could have free use of the computers adjacent to the customer service desk for 15 minutes.

The only difficulty Terry might encounter if he goes to Sidney to use the Internet is getting home. The next bus back to Bainbridge won’t leave until 5:50 the following morning. Meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

Terry hasn’t exhausted all his possibilities yet. He could go to a public library on Saturday.

There is no public transportation on Saturday in Chenango County so he’d have to hitch a ride to Bainbridge or to one of the member libraries of the Four County Library System that are open on Saturdays and provide public access computers. He’d have to present a fine-free library card, wait his turn, and do all his work within an hour, and get back home again. With a little luck, he’ll be able to do that and go to his part-time job and take care of his younger siblings while his mother goes to her minimum-wage job in Norwich.

Of course, with all the waiting around for public access computers, Terry probably won’t have time to do his part of the project and interact with his team, too. Terry’s teacher will probably mark him down for that. And since he won’t have the opportunities for online interaction that his more affluent peers with their laptops and broadband have, he’ll be at a disadvantage if he goes to college.

Meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

The really sensible thing for Terry to do is get himself a laptop computer with wireless access so he wouldn’t have to depend on public libraries for a computer. If he’s really careful with the money he has left after he buys groceries for the household and doesn’t take any time off from his part-time job to go to the library to do his homework, he ought to be able to save enough money eventually to buy a laptop so he can do his homework in a place that has free wireless access.

Apparently, the only unsecured wireless access point in Bainbridge is the public library. The service is available 24/7, but unfortunately there is no public place where Terry can use a laptop after school when the library is closed unless he goes to Bob’s Diner, which is probably not the best place to do a social studies assignment.

The other public libraries in the Four County Library System offer wireless. There are also two Delaware County businesses that offer free wireless access within eight miles of the center of Bainbridge. But even if Terry had his own laptop, there’s the problem of transportation to and from the wireless access site. Chenango County public transport stops running before 7 pm weekdays and there is no weekend service. Delaware County has no public transportation at all.

Meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

How should teachers use technology?

Some ed tech folks on Twitter have been discussing technology tools teachers should be able to use.

Based on my interactions with teachers through my website and blogs, I’d suggest a list of technology use practices teachers need to apply. Few items on my list have to do with actual teaching with technology. (I’ll save those for another post.) Teachers should:

  • Use school email only for school-related business.
  • Use their own personal email account, not one shared with a spouse or family.
  • Write an email subject line that indicates the topic of the message.
  • Compose email with the essential point in the opening paragraph.
  • Use an email signature that includes basic contact information.
  • Before sending attachments, ask intended recipients if they can read files in the selected format.
  • Use alternatives to attaching files to email, such as providing a link to a Google doc.
  • Distinguish between blogs and websites.
  • Download files without calling for tech support.
  • Provide basic information about their computer operating system, ISP and web browser when reporting a web problem.
  • Have available and use more than one web browser.
  • Have available and use a screen capture software program for things such as showing an error message or website problem.

Teachers who have these technology skills have a much easier time getting information they need in a timely manner than those who muddle through doing whatever is comfortable for them

Free web page to .pdf conversion

Every so often teachers want to print a web page for reference. iWeb2Print lets you convert a web page to a .pdf file for free.

The program is simple to use.

  1. Paste in the URL of the web page you want to copy to a .pdf.
  2. Select paper size and orientation. You can choose to exclude images, backgrounds, and/or color printing to save on print costs.
  3. Press convert. Wait for a message to that the completed .pdf is ready to download.

You don’t need to register or provide your email. Best of all, there’s no limit on the number of free conversions you are allowed.

Thanks to Twitter users @mrr0g3rs and @SmashingApps for alerting me to this useful program.

Classroom tech rant and wishlist

A discussion on the Foreign Language Teaching Forum about what one could do with Google docs prompted a thoughtful and funny piece by Margaret Kohler, who teaches elementary and middle school French at West Side Montessori Center in Toledo, Ohio. Below, with her permission, are her thoughts on what would help her teach well with technology.

I’m sick of all the new technology being thrown around and thinking, “Holy Toledo Mud Hens! Am I supposed to use all this? Why? When? How? Good gracious I’m behind the curve!” I mean, technology is only ONE of the many things we have to think about to be good teachers, right?

In a word:
Classroom tech rant and wishlist
It’s like a techno-avalanche. Last year I revved up my technology use so my students would be “Prepared for the Future” and because I figured it “Had to be Better” and mostly what I got out of it was headaches. Things that didn’t work. Things that disappointed. Things that had to be updated—right in the middle of class! Things requiring an add-on. Things needing more bandwidth. Streaming issues. Things that I had to get permission for. Broken links. Things that worked differently on different computers. Kids losing passwords. And the worst: things the kids didn’t know how to use yet so I used foreign language class time to teach them technology.Ugh, I learned my lesson. I’m grabbing the few golden nuggets that were home runs, and keeping them. The rest:forgetaboutit.

On the other hand, for example, my school is now moving to a “Google platform” or “Google environment” or we are getting Googlized, whatever, and the kids are going to have accounts, so naturally I think: ok, how can I take advantage of this? What in the functionality of this thing might benefit me/my students?

I want to know a little of what it CAN do because I am curious. I suppose I could just give the technology teacher a list of things I’d like to improve, and have her figure out what she’s got in her bag of tricks that can help me, but I want to be a partner in it because I know my classes best. There might be something it can do that I didn’t even realize could be useful. And if the whole school is using it, chances are I won’t have as many irritating little issues because it will be meticulously maintained for everyone, and the kids will already know how to use it.

It would be cool if someone would summarize the technologies out there being used for foreign language right now and what the practical uses of each are. What each techo-thing “does better” for foreign language learning and why. In r-e-a-l-l-y simple language. (Comprehensible input, please.) Sort of like the miscositas site but more comprehensive and for like 5th grade reading level.

What I especially want to know is HOW something has improved student learning outcomes (tell your story.) Or HOW it has saved time. And then some really smart person could make a decision tree to help teachers choose the right technology for their actual needs. (And update this information daily on a free website, just because they are nice!!) But I think the reality is a lot of teachers are just faced with their school getting a certain platform or technology, and trying to sift through it and find what in that can be of use.

So I visualize a two-way street: Start from where you are at: think of your needs and look for the best ways (tech & non-tech) to fill them.

At the same time, jump in the techo waters and just swim around really nonchalant, being aware of what’s out there without feeling pressured to catch every new fish in the sea. It’s hard when really smart-looking people say: “YOU should be using glibbitmeister! It’s the social networking/techno-learning tool of the century! It revolutionized my life!It’s more useful than the invention of toilet paper! I’m giving it to all my grandchildren this year!”

I believe I have gotten past that starry-eyed stage now and am wiser and more judicious (if not slightly cynical) about technology. I haven’t made friends with it yet, but maybe that’s in the future.

The wonderful tech person at school listened to my technology rant recently and just chuckled and said, “pick one or two things each year you think could be most helpful and don’t worry about the rest.” I love her!

Has anyone else gone through this? Maybe everybody already knows all this, and if so, sorry for the long post.

Anyway, thanks for explaining Google docs! I was hoping someone would tell me what it does!

Brainglass app not even half full

Karaoke4English Reader is a program with a distinct niche:  English language learners who want to improve their English reading skills by studying “historical speeches of US presidents.”

Karaoke4English is from Swedish mobile app developer Brainglass, which touts it as being for “beginning English learners.”

The program combines synchronized text and audio so reader can follow along as the text is read aloud. Users can get instant definitions of English words in Spanish, German, Russian, French, and Italian. They can also make their own study devices, such as flashcards.

Speeches are an unlikely choice for teaching reading skills. Listening to speech is vastly different from reading material designed for silent reading.  Moreover, speeches of US presidents hardly qualify as material for beginning English learners.

I could find no list on the four-page Brainglass website of what speeches are available other than the 1960 inaugural address of John F. Kennedy.

Karaoke4English Reader may have a great future, but for the present, its value to ESL educators is minimal.

[2016-02-03 removed link to the Brainglass website. It appears that only the blog remains on line.]