Top 10 higher ed-tech stories of 2008

A new web site peddles campus gossip, raising the ire of college administrators … A groundbreaking cyber-bullying trial ends with a mixed verdict … The Wall Street meltdown threatens campus investments and leaves administrators scrambling to find new ways of paying their bills: These are among the many noteworthy developments affecting higher-education technology in the past year.

In this special retrospective, the editors of eCampus News highlight what we think are the 10 most significant higher-education technology stories of 2008.

(Click on the title to read the full story)

10. Higher education continues to bolster security after Virginia Tech murders.

9. JuicyCampus leaves a nasty stain on campus relationships.

8. ‘Botnet’ attacks put school computers under hackers’ control.

7. The power of online video is a force for good–and bad.

6. A landmark cyber-bullying case inspires new laws–and raises awareness of a growing problem.

5. The RIAA scores huge wins … and then alters its strategy to combat illegal file sharing on campus.

4. Skyrocketing cost of textbooks spurs campus copyright battle.

3. Broadband policies spark debate as the U.S. slips farther behind.

2. Rising costs, and a tanking economy, hammer schools–forcing several key changes in behavior.

1. President-elect Barack Obama’s historic victory signals a shift in federal ed-tech policy.

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Higher education continues to bolster security after Virginia Tech murders

U.S. colleges need to work quickly to upgrade their policies on emergency notification, response, and evacuation. The efforts are driven at least in part by the federal College Opportunity and Affordability Act, which was signed into law Aug. 14.

The legislation followed a rash of school shootings, most tragically including the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were shot and killed. But except in terms of volume, Virginia Tech’s tragedy wasn’t unique.

Last September, for example, two Delaware State University students were shot near a campus dining hall, and authorities scrambled to keep students in their dorms and tell the campus community exactly what had transpired. Updates were posted on the school’s web site, but only a sliver of the student body got the message.

This year, university officials are more confident in their ability to inform, and inform quickly. Delaware State is one of many universities across the nation that are using emergency notification technology that instantly sends messages to students’ and faculty’s cell phones and eMail inboxes. During the school’s next emergency, the campus’s 3,700 students and 600 faculty and staff will be alerted within minutes of a violent act or extreme weather.

Delaware State officials and students said last year’s shooting did not dissolve the campus into panic, but students and faculty were not clear on the details of the attack.

"[The emergency system] will definitely help us notify the students quicker than we have in the past," said James Overton, Delaware State’s police chief. The eMail and phone messages won’t just tell students about an emergency on campus, Overton said. The warnings also will include instructions to find shelter, evacuate, or stay put.

"Not only do you have to tell them what’s going on; you also have to tell them what to do," he said.

University officials have stressed that students must sign up for the service to receive emergency-alert messages. Students and faculty log on to the school’s web site and plug in their personal eMail address and cell phone number. If they decline either or both options, the emergency message will be sent to the student’s university-issued eMail inbox.

Delaware State is using Instant Alert for Schools from New Jersey-based Honeywell International. The system was developed after a K-12 model released in November 2003, allowing schools to communicate with parents through automated phone calls and text messages. More than 2,600 schools nationwide use Honeywell’s alert system, and about 230 college campuses have adopted the company’s higher-education model, said company spokeswoman Karla Lemmon. The system reportedly can send out 125,000 text messages and 175,000 30-second automated phone calls in 15 minutes.

Emergency-alert systems vary widely in cost: Lemmon said small campuses can spend as little as $10,000 for installation, while larger universities typically spend upwards of $100,000.

Related links:

Latest trend in school security: Convergence

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A year after tragedy, colleges are more vigilant

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Questions abound as emergency alert flops

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Skyrocketing cost of textbooks spurs campus copyright battle

The high cost of college textbooks has spawned a new battleground in the fight to keep students from downloading copyright-protected materials over the internet: textbook file sharing.

Several web sites allow–and, in some cases, encourage–students to make available scanned copies of textbook pages for others to download free of charge, often using the same peer-to-peer file-sharing technology that is used to swap music and movies online.

"In the age of Napster and peer-to-peer file sharing for music, young people are used to taking copyrighted material," said J.D. Harriman, a partner in the intellectual property practice for the Los Angeles-based law firm DLA Piper. "This is not the education we want to give these students from the very beginning–to be copyright infringers."

Driving this latest trend are soaring textbook prices, which have risen at twice the annual rate of inflation over the last 20 years, a study done by the Government Accountability Office has found.

According to the College Board, the average college student spent between $805 and $1,229 on books and supplies alone during the 2007-08 school year. In the National Association of College Stores’ 2008 Student Watch Survey of Student Attitudes & Buying Habits, students surveyed estimated they spent $702 on required course materials annually. Required Course Materials include: printed texts (both new and used), electronic textbooks, and course packs and customized materials.

And though pressure from educational publishers prompted the host of a major textbook-sharing web site to pull the plug on its service earlier this month, legal experts say that’s just the beginning of what could become a protracted campaign by the publishing industry to end the sharing of copyrighted texts online–much as the recording industry has tried to do with music file-sharing on college campuses.

So far, publishers have limited their efforts to targeting offending web sites, similar to how the recording industry tried to shut down Napster and other music-sharing web sites earlier this decade.

But if the campaign to curb textbook file-sharing follows the same arc as that of the music industry’s efforts, it’s possible this movement could shift its focus onto the students themselves who download or make available copyrighted texts online–especially as publishers realize how hard it is to keep up with an ever-changing lineup of textbook-sharing web sites.

After more than a year of enabling students to scan, share, and download textbook content online, free of charge, Textbook Torrent–the largest and most high-profile of these textbook-sharing web sites–was no longer online as of press time.

Textbook Torrent reportedly offered more than 5,000 textbooks for downloading in PDF format, complete with their original layout and full-color illustrations. Users of the site could download and share these documents in the same fashion that music and movies have been shared in the past–through the peer-to-peer file-sharing system BitTorrent.

Related links:

Online textbooks see college doors open

Coming this fall: free online textbooks

Copyright fight looms over college textbooks

Online textbooks: Hope or hype?

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The top 10 ed-tech stories of 2008

A new web site peddles campus gossip, raising the ire of college administrators … A groundbreaking cyber-bullying trial ends with a mixed verdict … U.S. students benefit from a program designed to bring low-cost laptops to kids in developing nations: These are among the many noteworthy developments affecting educational technology in the past year.

In this special retrospective, the editors of eSchool News highlight what we think are the 10 most significant ed-tech stories of 2008.

(Click the title to read the full story)

10. Students use cell-phone cameras to send and receive inappropriate photos.

9. JuicyCampus leaves a nasty stain on campus relationships.

8. ‘Botnet’ attacks put school computers under hackers’ control.

7. The power of online video is a force for good–and bad.

6. A landmark cyber-bullying case inspires new laws–and raises awareness of a growing problem.

5. The RIAA scores huge wins … and then alters its strategy to combat illegal file sharing on campus.

4. U.S. students get low-cost laptops aimed at children in developing nations.

3. Broadband policies spark debate as the U.S. slips farther behind.

2. Rising costs, and a tanking economy, hammer schools–forcing several key changes in behavior.

1. President-elect Barack Obama’s historic victory signals a shift in federal ed-tech policy.

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President-elect Barack Obama’s historic victory signals a shift in federal ed-tech policy

For advocates of educational technology, the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s next president must seem like a breath of fresh air after eight years of an administration in which federal ed-tech spending declined nearly two-thirds … poorly designed research funded by the U.S. Department of Education called into question technology’s efficacy as a learning tool … and an utter lack of understanding of the need for federal leadership to keep America’s students competitive in the 21st-century pervaded.

Clearly, Obama gets it. In a campaign speech at Stebbins High School near Dayton, Ohio, in September, Obama noted that U.S. students are being outperformed by their peers in other countries on international benchmarks.

"Without a workforce trained in math, science, and technology, and the other skills of the 21st century, our companies will innovate less, our economy will grow less, and our nation will be less competitive. If we want to out-compete the world tomorrow, we must out-educate the world today," Obama said.

He added: "While technology has transformed just about every aspect of our lives–from the way we travel, to the way we communicate, to the way we look after our health–one of the places where we’ve failed to seize its full potential is in the classroom.

"Imagine a future where our children are more motivated because they aren’t just learning on blackboards, but on new whiteboards with digital touch screens; where every student in a classroom has a laptop at [his or her] desk; where [students] don’t just do book reports but design PowerPoint presentations; where they don’t just write papers, but they build web sites; where research isn’t done just by taking a book out of the library, but by eMailing experts in the field; and where teachers are less a source of knowledge than a coach for how best to use it and obtain knowledge. By fostering innovation, we can help make sure every school in America is a school of the future.

"And that’s what we’re going to do when I’m president. We will help schools integrate technology into their curriculum, so we can make sure public school students are fluent in the digital language of the 21st-century economy. We’ll teach our students not only math and science, but teamwork and critical thinking and communication skills, because that’s how we’ll make sure they’re prepared for today’s workplace."

One month after his historic victory in the Nov. 4 election, Obama previewed an economic recovery plan that focuses on federal investments in modernizing school buildings, expanding broadband internet access, and making public buildings more energy-efficient, among other areas.

"My economic recovery plan will launch the most sweeping effort to modernize and upgrade school buildings that this country has ever seen," Obama said in outlining the plan. "We will repair broken schools, make them more energy-efficient, and put new computers in our classrooms. Because to help our children compete in a 21st-century economy, we need to send them to 21st-century schools."

Of course, Obama faces several key challenges as he looks to implement these plans. The country faces a $10 trillion national debt, the worst economy since the Great Depression, and several other priorities to tackle. His administration also must make sure it’s not looking to technology as a panacea for what ails education, but instead invests wisely on programs that have been proven to work–and tracks the results of this spending to ensure accountability.

The need for such accountability was underscored by a Dec. 22 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about an audit of Pennsylvania’s Classrooms of the Future program, which found inadequate public disclosure, inconsistent grant funding, and insufficient review of equipment purchases and program results. The last thing supporters of educational technology need is a public backlash against federal ed-tech spending that cannot be proven to have brought about positive change.

But again, in choosing Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan as his secretary of education, Obama also appears to understand this.

Duncan has focused on boosting classroom technology and has presided over the launch of a high school that replaces textbooks with web-based course curriculum during his seven years as Chicago Public Schools CEO–but he’s also closed failing schools and implemented strict accountability measures. He appears to understand the need for balancing innovation with results: The city’s schools have recorded statistically significant gains in test scores of fourth- and eighth-grade students in mathematics, and of fourth graders in reading, since Duncan took control of the system in 2001.

As the nation following the hotly contested presidential race earlier in the year, technology played a key role in helping teach students about the election process. Thanks to the creativity of some ed-tech vendors, the development of Web 2.0 technologies, and the dedication of educators from coast to coast, students experienced the 2008 presidential election as never before–using interactive tools and strategies that taught important 21st-century skills, promoted civic engagement, and involved students in the democratic process.

Obama, too, used technology in creative ways that helped him win. Observers have credited Obama’s success in no small part to his campaign’s innovative use of technology–including blogging, text messaging, and online social networks–to connect with younger voters and get them excited about politics and the election. His campaign’s unprecedented use of technology holds many lessons for schools and colleges about how to inspire communities–and mobilize support.

Related links:

McCain, Obama float education plans

eSN poll: Leadership trumps experience

Obama calls for ed-tech investment

Tech helps teach about the 2008 election

Obama makes history; what’s next?

Most ed leaders bullish on Obama’s win

Obama’s high-tech win holds lessons for ed

Ed tech central to Obama’s recovery plan

Obama taps Arne Duncan for secretary of ED

eSN Vanguard Report: Chicago Public Schools

State school chiefs seek Obama’s ear

A bug in Pennsylvania’s Classrooms for the Future program

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Rising costs, and a tanking economy, hammer schools–forcing several key changes in behavior

Earlier in the year, school leaders faced soaring gas and oil prices, leaving them searching for ways to offset the effects of rising transportation and heating costs. Then, shortly after the new school year began, schools faced another crisis: the collapse of the financial markets on Wall Street.

In between came warnings that state budget deficits and a weakening economy would leave educators with fewer resources as they seek to meet strict federal mandates for student achievement.

A survey of school superintendents in October revealed that school districts in every region of the country are feeling the effects of the economic downturn, with many having already delayed technology purchases, cut non-essential travel, and increased class sizes, among other measures. The survey also suggested the poor economy could threaten the gains in student achievement that schools have fought so hard to attain–and it could undermine their capacity to deliver essential services in the coming year.

Wall Street’s meltdown has hit some schools particularly hard. Some Wisconsin school districts are reeling after a risky financial investment involving an Irish bank called Depfa produced disastrous consequences–including severe injury to school operating budgets and teacher retirement funds. And about 1,000 private schools and colleges were left scrambling to pay their bills after an investment fund known as Commonfund partially froze withdrawals amid the credit crunch.

On the bright side, enrollment in online degree programs continues to rise, and officials predict a sustained increase in online enrollment as the economy sours and good jobs become scarcer, according to report published in November. And as schools look to trim expenses, many are implementing creative solutions–such as virtual field trips, four-day work weeks, and "green" technologies and practices–that will serve them well even after the economy recovers.

Related links:

School leaders get advice on ‘green’ computing

Fuel prices force schools to get creative

Gas prices fuel rise in virtual field trips

Four-day week on the rise in education

Poll: Two-thirds of colleges are going ‘green’

School libraries try to do more with less

Wall Street crisis hits higher education

CoSN offers green-computing, disaster help

U.S. schools burned by market crisis

Study: Online enrollment jumps 13 percent

Survey reveals economy’s impact on schools

Wisconsin school districts embracing green technology

Suburban Ohio school district wants a bailout, too

Bad economy helping web scammers recruit ‘mules’

Higher-education leaders press Congress for chunk of stimulus funds

Wireless campus initiative shelved in South Dakota

As economy worsens, library use rises

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Broadband policies spark debate as the U.S. slips farther behind

Few would argue that universal access to high-speed internet service is a key to the nation’s economic competitiveness; at schools and colleges, for instance, the continued growth of distance education is dependent on better, faster, and more reliable internet service, including to students’ homes.

At the beginning of the year, Bush administration officials painted a rosy picture of the state of broadband access across the United States. A report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) concluded that the goal of affordable access to broadband service for everyone has been realized "to a very great degree."

The NTIA report drew its conclusion using data from the Federal Communications Commission and other sources. The FCC reported that more than 99 percent of all U.S. ZIP codes received broadband service from at least one provider by the end of 2006.

But critics noted that the FCC’s data are misleading. Under this scenario, they said, a broadband provider only has to serve a single residence in a ZIP code for it to be counted. Critics also pointed to a 2006 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that ranked the U.S. 15th in the world for broadband lines per person in 2006, down from No. 4 in 2001. And indeed, their concerns appeared justified as later developments unfolded.

In February, Japan launched a new, experimental internet satellite designed to give extremely high speeds to rural and other areas that have been left off that country’s already high-speed grid. And in August, a report from the Communications Workers of America said the average download speeds for broadband services across the United States have remained relatively unchanged over the past year, as the U.S. continues to lag behind other countries. The report claimed that average download speeds in the U.S. increased only 0.4 megabits per second, to 2.3Mbps. By contrast, the average download speed in Japan is 63 Mbps and in South Korea, 49 Mbps.

Around the same time as the NTIA issued its report, the higher-education technology group Educause called on the federal government, state governments, and the private sector to come together to solve what it called a U.S. "crisis" in high-speed internet connectivity. The Educause report, "A Blueprint for Big Broadband," said the demand for bandwidth in the United States has accelerated well beyond the capacity of current broadband networks–a problem that has enormous implications for U.S. education.

To help advance the spread of broadband internet service nationwide, the FCC voted in November to open up unused, unlicensed portions of the television airwaves known as "white spaces" to deliver wireless broadband service to more Americans.

The FCC’s plan will allow the use of white spaces to provide broadband service after the transition from analog to digital TV broadcasting in February, but it faces its own share of critics. TV broadcasters argue that using white spaces to deliver wireless internet access could disrupt their over-the-air signals, and manufacturers and users of wireless microphones–including sports leagues, church leaders, performers, and even some educators–also have voiced concerns about signal interference.

These concerns didn’t stop Dell Inc. from moving quickly after the FCC’s vote. Just one day later, Dell announced that it would add a new wireless option to future laptops by installing radio chips that provide connectivity over the unused television spectrum.

Another option for boosting the availability of broadband internet access appears to have stalled. The Associated Press reported in May that the idea of providing high-speed internet service over power lines now looks like it has died in infancy, as several trials of broadband over power lines (BPL) have folded. Compared with coaxial cables and copper phone lines, AP reported, power lines are poor conduits for data.

Yet another challenge to ensuring that all Americans have high-speed internet access was revealed in a July report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which noted that attitude, rather than availability, might be the key reason more Americans don’t have broadband service.

Only 14 percent of dial-up users say they’re stuck with the older, slower connectivity method because they can’t get broadband service in their neighborhoods, Pew reported. Thirty-five percent say they’re still on dial-up because broadband prices are too high, while another 19 percent say nothing would persuade them to upgrade.

Aiming to address the issue of cost, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin pushed a controversial proposal to blanket the nation with a free wireless broadband network that would provide basic high-speed connections for people who can’t afford the premium services offered by the big phone and cable companies, or for people who live in places where these services are unavailable.

Martin hoped the FCC would vote to auction off a slice of federal airwaves to a wireless provider who would build such a network, based on a plan by a startup venture called M2Z Networks. But he and his fellow commissioners cancelled a vote on the plan in December in the face of strong opposition.

Led by T-Mobile USA, the nation’s wireless carriers have been lobbying to defeat Martin’s proposal, which they say would interfere with their own services. The Bush administration wasn’t happy, either: It urged the FCC not to proceed with an auction that would favor one company’s business model. And some key Democrats on Capitol Hill called on the agency to hold off on any controversial items until the Obama administration takes over.

Despite falling just short of an FCC vote on the plan, M2Z co-founder John Muleta insisted the company would continue its campaign to gain access to the spectrum it needs. "I’m optimistic," he said, "because this idea that we need to change the way the broadband market is structured has received serious consideration."

Related links:

Administration: Broadband goal nearly reached

Report urges U.S. to think ‘big’ about broadband

Japan boosts internet speeds with ultra-broadband satellite

Broadband over power lines fails to catch on

Municipal broadband projects under attack

SETDA urges schools to boost bandwidth

Study: Many dial-up users don’t want broadband

Study shows U.S. broadband speeds continue to lag

Experts call for broadband transparency

Feds OK broadband over TV white spaces

Dell to offer ‘white space’ connectivity in laptops

Free broadband plan raises critics’ ire

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U.S. students get low-cost laptops aimed at children in developing nations

A pioneering experiment is now under way in Birmingham, Ala., in the first foray of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative within the United States.

Created three years ago to bring technology to children in developing countries, the nonprofit OLPC has partnered with Birmingham–at the behest of Mayor Larry Langford and the Birmingham City Council–for the first large-scale educational deployment of low-cost XO laptops in this country.

The pilot program began earlier this year with 1,000 of the group’s $200 laptops for students in Glen Iris Elementary School’s first through fifth grades. After some bureaucratic squabbles, the school board went on to approve the city’s purchase of 14,000 more–funded by taxpayer dollars–with plans eventually to include all 15,000 students in the school system’s first through eighth grades.

But concerns remain. Some critics wonder whether a computer initially designed for children in poor, rural parts of the world–and primarily using its own non-Windows operating system–is the right learning tool for students who eventually will seek to join the general computing population in the U.S. Others worry that teachers will have trouble getting up to speed. Still others are concerned that it could be difficult to track progress and achievement on machines that promote a constructivist approach to learning, which could pose a problem in today’s educational climate of high-stakes testing and accountability.

As a result of these concerns, education leaders are keeping a close eye on Birmingham to see if this program will work–and whether it will be worth duplicating in school districts across the U.S.

"There’s enormous potential here," said Tracy Gray, managing director at the American Institutes for Research and head of its Center for Implementing Technology in Education. "There’s also enormous pressure."

Although the XO wasn’t designed for children in the U.S., it does feature several tools that can help kids learn. In February, for instance, OLPC announced a deal with ePals to put the company’s suite of safe, kid-friendly electronic communication tools on the machines. And though Birmingham’s models run on a version of the open-source Linux operating system, OLPC also now offers the option of a Windows model.

In resuming its "Give One, Get One" offer, in which people spend $400 to buy one of the nonprofit’s computers and donate a second one to a child in a developing country, the group also previewed the next-generation version of the device: a smaller, more energy-efficient model with two touch screens and a price closer to the long-term goal of $100.

The XO-2 will be about half the size of the first-generation device and will more closely resemble a book. Its keyboard will be replaced with a second touch-sensitive display surface, turning the device into an eBook with a left and right page if held vertically, a hinged laptop if held horizontally, or a continuous tablet surface if laid flat.

Regardless of how the experiment unfolds in Birmingham or a handful of other U.S. cities that have now purchased XO computers for their students, the low-cost laptop initiative already has made a huge impact on educational technology. It’s spawned a host of imitators, including Intel’s Classmate PC, and even a new category of device: the mini-notebook, exemplified by a device that HP unveiled in April. And with budgets now stretched to their limits, school leaders certainly will appreciate having more lower-cost options for bringing computing to every student.

Related links:

Low-cost laptop projects offer new tools

Intel unveils new Classmate PCs

Birmingham approves low-cost laptop project

HP unveils small laptops for students

Low-cost XO laptop now runs Windows

Laptop-for-kids project to resume donations

Can OLPC’s software teach the world to play music?

Mini laptops a hit with schools

Portuguese kids to get 500,000 Classmate PCs

Low-cost laptop experiment under way

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The RIAA scores huge wins … and then alters its strategy to combat illegal file sharing on campus

The music industry scored a huge win in its efforts to clamp down on illegal file sharing on college campuses when Congress passed legislation designed to tackle the problem.

Over the objections of campus administrators, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act included a measure forcing colleges and universities to implement network administration technologies that deter illegal peer-to-peer file sharing. These technologies can include bandwidth shaping, traffic monitoring that identifies the largest bandwidth users, or products designed to reduce or block illegal file sharing, according to the legislation. The law allows each institution to determine its own policy and use the corresponding technology.

In July, the American Council on Education (ACE) sent a letter to members of Congress stating that while the law has a number of desirable provisions, it also has a number of drawbacks.

"Most notably, it will create an extraordinary number of new federal reporting and regulatory requirements dealing with … peer-to-peer file sharing. Although some of these have been made less onerous as the legislative process has proceeded, the total volume of new federal requirements remains considerable," ACE President Molly Corbett Broad wrote. "Complying with these requirements will be time-consuming and inevitably will increase administrative and personnel costs on campuses."

Indeed, an analysis done by the Campus Computing Project estimated that some colleges and universities might have to spend up to half a million dollars to comply with new federal rules.

"The costs [will] vary dramatically depending on the college," said Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project. To meet the law’s requirements, higher-education institutions will have to purchase hardware or software to stem file sharing, if they don’t already use such technologies. There are also other costs related to time spent by school administrators, legal counsel, IT personnel, and student affairs personnel, Green said.

The nonprofit higher-education technology organization Educause objected to the legislation, because it forces colleges to "take technological steps to block allegedly infringing material … when there is no consensus on what technology can adequately and accurately accomplish that goal."

Even before Congress passed the file-sharing measure, the RIAA had stepped up its efforts to combat the problem. The group had lobbied state legislatures to pass similar laws forcing state colleges and universities to take steps to police their networks, and Tennessee was one of the first states to do so.

While the RIAA continues to push for technological help in deterring illegal file sharing, the group recently announced a change in strategy: It will only file lawsuits against the most egregious offenders–those who have been warned repeatedly to stop.

That’s good news for campus officials, who increasingly resented serving as go-betweens in the music industry’s efforts to "shake down" file sharers for settlements. In fact, several schools had begun fighting the RIAA on this point, refusing to pass along "pre-litigation" settlement letters to suspected violators.

In announcing the shift, the RIAA acknowledged that it was paying more in legal fees than it was taking in from the settlements. But the group stands by its prior efforts, which it says have raised awareness and helped deter some piracy.

The move comes as another potential strategy for dealing with the problem is emerging: a proposed music "tax" that students would pay in exchange for the right to swap songs online. Warner Music Group, an industry giant, has helped pitch the student fee proposal to well-known universities. And while some campus officials say they want to hear more about the plan, others–including those at the University of Colorado-Boulder–are wary.

The RIAA also said it would proceed with any file-sharing lawsuits that have yet to be resolved–including the case of a Boston University graduate student who is being defended by Harvard law professor Charles Nesson in a high-profile case that could determine the constitutionality of the group’s legal assaults.

Related links:

RIAA steps up anti-piracy efforts, targets state lawmakers

Congress: Schools must clamp down on file sharing

Colleges push back against RIAA’s methods

Tech officials grapple with campus file sharing

Study looks at cost to police campus networks

Harvard law professor fires back at RIAA

Judge postpones hearing in key RIAA lawsuit

Music ‘tax’ proposed as file-sharing solution

RIAA drops effort to sue song swappers

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A landmark cyber-bullying case inspires new laws–and raises awareness of a growing problem

In a high-profile case involving cyber bullying, Missouri mother Lori Drew was found guilty in November of three minor offenses instead of the main conspiracy charge in a cruel internet hoax that allegedly drove 13-year-old Megan Meier to suicide.

The landmark federal trial was one more step in the healing process for Tina Meier, Megan’s mother, who has focused on ways to protect other children from cyber bullying in the wake of Megan’s death–even leaving her job as a real estate agent to dedicate herself to the Megan Meier Foundation.

Prosecutors said Drew, 49, and two others created a fictitious 16-year-old boy on MySpace and sent flirtatious messages from him to Megan. They said Drew wanted to humiliate Megan for saying mean things about Drew’s teenage daughter. The "boy" then dumped Megan, saying, "The world would be a better place without you." Megan promptly hanged herself with a belt in her bedroom closet in October 2006.

The nation’s first cyber-bullying trial hinged on an unprecedented–and, some legal experts say, highly questionable–application of computer-fraud law.

Because Missouri did not have a law against cyber bullying at the time of Megan’s death, prosecutors charged Drew under the federal Computer Use and Fraud Act, which in the past has been used in hacking and trademark theft cases. Among other things, Drew was charged with conspiring to violate the fine print in MySpace’s terms-of-service agreement, which prohibits the use of phony names and harassment of other MySpace members.

"The rules are fairly simple," federal prosecutor Mark Krause said. "You don’t lie. You don’t pretend to be someone else. You don’t use the site to harass others. They harassed Megan Meier."

But some legal experts have suggested this is a reach–and that Drew’s conviction might not stand up on appeal.

After Megan’s suicide, Missouri passed a law against cyber harassment, and similar federal legislation was introduced on Capitol Hill earlier this year.

In Missouri, a handful of cases have been filed since the state’s cyber-bullying law took effect in August. In one of the new cases, 21-year-old Nicole Williams is accused of using electronic communications to harass a teenager in a dispute over a boy. Williams is scheduled for arraignment on one count of harassment on Jan. 8.

Defense attorney Michael Kielty, who represents Williams, criticized the state’s revised law on electronic harassment. He called Megan Meier’s death tragic, but said lawmakers had engaged in a knee-jerk reaction to try to address the high-profile case.

"It’s probably one of the worst-written laws I’ve seen in my career," Kielty said, noting that kids used to say things face to face or pass notes in school commenting on someone’s looks or weight. The new law "criminalizes behavior that otherwise wouldn’t be illegal, except for the medium," he said.

About 45 states have updated their laws to address harassment through electronic communications or crafted new laws to respond to the concerns of cyber bullying or stalking, said Naomi Goodno, an associate professor at Pepperdine University School of Law who has written about cyber-bullying law. Some of those changes have come as a result of Megan’s death.

State Sen. Scott Rupp, who sponsored the bill to change Missouri’s harassment law, said Missouri’s law hasn’t been fully tested, but he believes it is making people more aware of what they say online.

"That people are actually paying attention–it’s a good thing," Rupp said.

Related links:

Federal lawmaker targets cyber bullying

Cyber bullying: From victim to crusader

Web site lets kids report cyber bullying

Kids keep adults in the dark about cyber bullying

MySpace-hoax trial shines light on federal cyber bullying bill

Cyber bullying case nets mixed verdict

Web sites offer tools to combat cyber bullying

Missouri begins prosecuting under cyber bullying law

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