Teacher faces disciplinary action for racy online photos

A U.K. teacher is facing disciplinary action after outraged parents spotted photographs of her posing in her underwear on the internet, reports the Daily Mail. Aspiring model Natasha Gray, 30, was reprimanded after a stunned parent wrote an anonymous letter complaining about the "provocative pictures." Gray, who is the head of PE and Dance at a school in Cambridge, is pictured wearing pink lingerie and stilettos on the web site iModel.com. In 2002, Gray was named Britain’s sexiest teacher after winning a phone-in competition, just two weeks before she started her current job. The angry letter from an unnamed parent said the "inappropriate" pictures were "common knowledge" among students as young as 11 at the school. Head teacher Ben Slade insisted the photos had nothing to do with the school but said Gray would be severely reprimanded and the photos removed…

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Colorado bill to help schools ‘go green’

Colorado lawmakers on March 29 unveiled a plan to offer school districts low-interest loans to install solar panels on rooftops, build wind turbines, or convert diesel-guzzling buses to battery power, reports the Denver Post. House sponsor Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, touted the potential savings on utility bills and said students can learn about alternative energy through the program. House Bill 1312’s architects couldn’t say how many schools might participate or the estimated size of loans. But they said the program would likely start with just a few schools at first, and windswept Eastern Plains school districts are likely candidates. The cash for the loans would come from the sale of vast swaths of land set aside to benefit school children in the 1800s. "This program is a win-win-win," said state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, predicting it will also help create jobs on top of saving on utility bills. Schools can "put that money back into the classroom, where it should be."

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Teens rake in income from YouTube ads

Long Island teens Eric Striffler, 18, and Mac Guttenberg, 14, are among a select group of YouTube posters that are earning substantial incomes from the advertising revenue their videos generate on the site, Newsday reports. Striffler and Guttenberg have been posting YouTube videos that have drawn such large and devoted followings that YouTube has included both filmmakers in its user-partner program, in which YouTube shares with them ad revenue–more than 50 percent–from display and overlay ads on or near their videos. That places both teens among the program’s top earners, which include hundreds of partners who are raking in thousands of dollars a month, says YouTube spokesman Aaron Zamost. Striffler said he’s delighted to be bringing in as much as $2,000 a month, but that if the program were to stop, "I would not stop making videos. … I don’t do it for the money."

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New standards to facilitate eLearning

A consortium of educators and technology executives has developed a common set of standards that will allow any kind of digital learning content–such as an electronic text, an online exam, or even a social-networking application–to be used with any type of learning management system (LMS) or student information system (SIS), or web portal.

In theory, implementing this set of free, open standards, called Common Cartridge, would give K-12 and college educators the flexibility to use any combination of materials in a collaborative, content-rich digital learning environment, without worrying about compatibility issues.

Using Common Cartridge standards also would "require less custom integration work to deploy" LMS or SIS software, said Rob Abel, chief executive of the IMS Global Learning Consortium, which oversaw development of the standards.

Common Cartridge aims to solve two problems, according to the IMS web site. The first is to provide a standard way to represent digital course materials for use in online learning systems, so that content can be developed in a single format and used across a wide variety of systems. The second is to enable new publishing models for online course materials and digital books that are modular, interactive, customizable, and distributed online.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because many educators and content providers believed an earlier set of standards, called SCORM, would be able to do the same thing.

Developed by the Department of Defense, SCORM–short for Sharable Content Object Reference Model–also aims to make digital learning materials accessible, interoperable, and reusable in a variety of learning environments. (See "Gathering SCORM could transform eLearning.")

But SCORM is a much more limited set of standards, IMS says. While it works fine for stand-alone content objects–such as a video clip illustrating how cells divide, or a PowerPoint explication of a sonnet–it cannot be used to define the more collaborative, interactive learning experiences, such as an online assessment or a wiki, that are typical of today’s Web 2.0-enabled course environments.

"SCORM was developed to support [the] portability of self-paced, computer-based training content," IMS says. "This is a very different set of needs than those of digital course materials that are used to support an online course where there is a cohort of students and an instructor, teacher, or professor."

Common Cartridge is supported by a host of publishers, vendors, and LMS platforms, including McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Blackboard, and Sakai. Its supporters say it will allow greater flexibility for professors creating online or hybrid courses and could reduce the cost of deploying software solutions.

Annie Chechitelli, vice president of products at learning software company Wimba and a member of the IMS Learning Tools Interoperability Working Group, said Common Cartridge could be invaluable for professors who teach the same course on different campuses.

If a professor uses Desire2Learn to create a course platform, for instance, the standards will allow her to "reuse the learning content" if she is hired to teach the same course at another college that uses Blackboard, Chechitelli said. Without the standards, the professor could not import her course from one platform to another, meaning she would have to take hours to recreate the course online.

Abel said the standards also will make life easier for students. Teachers and their students will be able to log onto several web sites through the same account, he said, and there will be integration between each site–combining the best of every online educational resource.

"It becomes a much more seamless experience for the teacher or student," he said. "If you’re making [students’] life more complex, they’re probably not going to do well. We think it’s going to really improve [online learning] and open up the door for much more innovation for how digital learning can come together."

Chechitelli said campus IT administrators should ask their current or prospective vendors if they support (or are planning to support) Common Cartridge and its capabilities.

More than 35 organizations have contributed to the development of Common Cartridge. Formal ratification of version one (v1) of the standards was completed in December.

Developers of online courses or digital course materials can make these items Common Cartridge compatible by downloading one of many tools available to create common cartridges, such as the open-source eXe tool (http://exelearning.org).

You can also convert existing content to Common Cartridge format; IMS says the Open University converted 399 online courses to Common Cartridge by using the specification and a manual process.

With additional reporting from Managing Editor Dennis Pierce.


IMS Global Learning Consortium

Common Cartridge FAQs

Common Cartridge eLearning Product Directory

Common Cartidge specifications


Federal judge blocks charges in ‘sexting’ case

A federal judge on March 30 temporarily blocked a prosecutor from filing child pornography charges against three northeastern Pennsylvania teenagers who appeared in racy photos that turned up on classmates’ cell phones.

The case is one of the first to address how prosecutors should handle the growing phenomenon of "sexting," in which teens send each other sexually suggestive photos of themselves or others, usually via cell phone. The nationwide problem has confounded parents, school administrators, and law-enforcement officials.

Prosecutors in a number of states, including Pennsylvania, Connecticut, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin, have tried to put a stop to it by charging teens who send and receive the pictures. But many parents and other observers say filing child pornography charges should be reserved for real sex offenders, not teenagers who might have used poor judgment but meant nothing malicious. (See "Porn charges for sexting stir debate.")

In the Pennsylvania case, U.S. District Judge James Munley ruled against Wyoming County District Attorney George Skumanick Jr., who has threatened to pursue felony charges against the girls unless they agree to participate in a five-week after-school program.

One picture showed two of the girls in their bras. The second photo showed another girl just out of the shower and topless, with a towel wrapped around her waist.

"We are grateful the judge recognized that prosecuting our clients for non-sexually explicit photographs raises serious constitutional questions," Witold Walczack, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said in a statement.

"This country needs to have a discussion about whether prosecuting minors as child pornographers for merely being impulsive and naive is the appropriate way to address the serious consequences that can result" when teens send sexually suggestive photos of themselves and others to one another, he said.

Skumanick, who has said he can prosecute the teens as "accomplices" in the production of child pornography, said he would consider an appeal.

The ruling "sets a dangerous precedent by allowing people to commit crimes and then seek refuge from state arrest in the federal courts," he said.

The photos surfaced in October, when officials at Tunkhannock Area High School confiscated five cell phones and found that boys had been trading photos of scantily clad, semi-nude, or nude teenage girls. The students with the cell phones ranged in age from 11 to 17.

Skumanick met with about 20 students and their parents last month and offered them a deal in which the youths wouldn’t be prosecuted if they took a class on sexual harassment, sexual violence, and gender roles. Seventeen of the students accepted the offer, but three balked and sued Skumanick last week.

The suit, filed by the ACLU, said the teens didn’t consent to having the picture distributed and that the images are not pornographic. The ACLU said Skumanick’s threat to prosecute is "retaliation" for the students’ refusal to participate in the class.

Munley’s decision to grant the teens a temporary restraining order prevents Skumanick from filing charges while the lawsuit proceeds.

The girls "make a reasonable argument that the images presented to the court do not appear to qualify in any way as depictions of prohibited sexual acts. Even if they were such depictions, the plaintiffs’ argument that [they] were not involved in disseminating the images is also a reasonable one," Munley wrote.

Under Pennsylvania’s child pornography law, it’s a felony to possess or disseminate photos of a minor engaged in sexual activity, "lewd exhibition of the genitals," or nudity that is meant to titillate.

The judge said he "offers no final conclusion on the merits of plaintiffs’ position" and scheduled a hearing on the case for June 2.


U.S. District Court for the Middle of Pennsylvania

American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania


AV technology in focus at InfoComm 2009

With a focus on the power of audio-visual technology, InfoComm 2009 gets underway on June 14 in Orlando, Fla.  More than 30,000 attendees from around the world, and more than 850 exhibitors, are expected.

Pavilions throughout the show floor include focuses on audio, digital signage, and lighting and staging.

"Attending InfoComm’s tradeshow provides a tremendous return on an attendee’s investment of both time and money," said Randal A. Lemke, Ph.D., executive director of InfoComm International.  "It is the only place to see a comprehensive array of conferencing, professional audio, digital signage, display, lighting, control system and signal distribution technology solutions.  Attendees can also take advantage of education and training from leading experts and manufacturers while they are at the Show."

More than 300 education sessions will offer the training that AV professionals rely on to stay current with a constantly changing industry.  More than 8,000 technology managers responsible for purchasing products are also anticipated. 

Special exhibits and events include audio demonstration rooms, an HD Conferencing and Telepresence Showcase, and a digital signage application showcase.

"The question should not be whether you can afford to attend InfoComm, but rather, can you afford to miss it?" said Lemke.

The conference is supported by Bosch Communications Systems, Christie Digital, Crestron Electronics, Extron Electronics, Middle Atlantic Products, Inc., Polycom, and Tandberg.


InfoComm 2009


Breach sends water onto school campus in Fargo

The slowly receding Red River breached a dike on Fargo’s north side early Sunday, sending water flowing into buildings at a school campus before it could be contained, city and school officials said.

The extent of the damage at Oak Grove Lutheran School wasn’t immediately known. The surrounding neighborhood was not evacuated, but residents in some areas were told to plug their sewers and monitor basements.

Principal Morgan Forness said city officials, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Guard unsuccessfully tried to contain the water to one building after a permanent flood wall panel at the school buckled around 1:30 a.m.

"They made a gallant effort … but the power of the river is just too much," he told KFGO radio. "They gave it everything they had, and it just–we couldn’t contain it. It came center of campus, and now, it’s inundating all of the buildings."

The city said the flooding was caused by erosion and began when water came up through the floor of one building and infiltrated the rest of campus.

"I think there’s a little bit of divine intervention here–in the sense that we built a secondary dike to help protect the school, and that’s gonna probably end up helping to protect the neighborhood," school President Bruce Messelt told KFGO.

After cresting around midnight Friday at 40.82 feet, the Red River had dropped to 40.25 feet by early Sunday–still more than 22 feet above flood stage. Fargo fears that more water could burst past the levees and submerge parts of the city.

The river may fluctuate up to a foot and remain at dangerous levels for a week, meaning people will have to endure an agonizing several days before they reach the point they can relax.

The city was to resume sandbagging Sunday morning and was requesting more volunteers. Many were expected to turn out after church services that are staples of life on Sunday mornings in Fargo, a heavily Lutheran town of more than 90,000.

"I just hope that everybody doesn’t let up. We can’t let our guard down," said Al Erickson, a 47-year-old banker whose two-story home is across the street from a golf course that is now a giant water hazard. "The city as a whole will be OK, but there may be neighborhoods that still may have some trouble."

Forecasters say the river is retreating because cold temperatures have been freezing water that normally would be flowing into the river. By the time that water thaws, the biggest flooding threat should have passed, Hudson said.

Officials in charge of the flood-response effort deployed high-tech Predator drone aircraft, called up more National Guard troops and brought in hundreds of bags that each hold a ton of sand and could be dropped by helicopter into breaks in the levees.

The National Guard has been dispatching inspection teams to the levees, joining a cadre of volunteers who are being asked to do the same. The task is monumental, with more than 35 miles of levees around Fargo.

"I don’t think there’s an inch of riverfront on the Fargo side that doesn’t have some kind of levee," said city engineer Mark Bittner. "We encourage neighborhoods to get together and have their own dike patrols and assist us."

Bruce Boelter walked the entire length of a roughly mile-long stretch of sandbag dike to eyeball the manmade wall separating his subdivision and the Red River. Neighbor Tony Guck joined him halfway. Each felt a special stake in the dike they helped build.

"If we don’t protect this, it’s gonna get us. It’s basically for our own security," said Guck, 42. "I’m just planning on coming out every six hours and walking it."

Water has forced hundreds of residents in the Fargo area from their homes and submerged basements and yards in an untold number of houses along the river.
Emergency crews in boats had to rescue about 150 people from their homes in neighboring communities in Minnesota, while about 20 percent of households in Moorhead have been urged to leave.

The flooding was brought on by heavier-than-average winter snows, spring rains and a rapid thaw of the snowpack that sent the Red River to record-high levels in Fargo, North Dakota’s largest city.

A winter storm was predicted to hit North Dakota early next week, although the snow isn’t expected to affect the flooding in Fargo. Still, wind from the storm could cause 2-foot waves that could send some water over the top of dikes, said Dave Kellenbenz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

"That’s something we’re going to have to watch closely as we move into next week," he said.

The variation in flood forecasts was a roller coaster throughout the week for Fargo, with the projection edging upward twice before being lowered Saturday. Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker opened a briefing earlier in the day by apologizing for criticizing the weather service.

Greg Gust, a warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service, said the predictions are complex. They come from round-the-clock work by hundreds of scientists, engineers and other experts. Some of those people brave the river for measurements of volume, flow and temperatures. They also use computer models for mathematical and statistical analyses.

But even with improved forecasting methods, the river’s record levels and the volatile temperatures don’t allow anyone to be certain, and the weather service continued to hedge its prediction Saturday.

The main focus for the Fargo area will be on whether the long line of levees will be able to hold up against the floodwaters–regardless of their level. Engineers say that anytime water is pressed up against a levee for a considerable period of time, there is a risk of catastrophic flooding.

"The saturation usually becomes the enemy of a levee over time," Jud Kneuvean, chief of emergency management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Kansas City. "It can cause the embankment to be less stable and slide."

Word of the river’s possible retreat couldn’t come at a better time for 91-year-old Jim Sundahl, whose Moorhead yard has already been swallowed up by floodwaters. He has been waging a furious battle to keep the waters from his home, where he was born.

"I’m happy about it, I’ll tell you that," Sundahl said. "But it won’t do us any good for four or five days."


Red River water levels