‘Kindle killer’ might not be iPad, but Blio

Blio's makers say it will allow students to interact with textbooks in full color.

Blio's makers say it will allow students to interact with textbooks in full color.

Despite all the buzz about Apple’s iPad tablet and how it could be useful for reading electronic textbooks, a new software program on the way might hold even more promise for education.

Blio, a free eReader program that is expected to be available in February, reportedly will allow users to read more than a million electronic books on nearly any computer or portable device, with the ability to highlight and annotate text, hear the text read aloud, and more.

Blio was announced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and is the brainchild of education technology pioneer Ray Kurzweil, creator of Kurzweil Educational Systems and a range of assistive technology products.

Perhaps the software’s most impressive feature is that it can support the original layout, font, and graphics of any book in full color, its creators say. It also can support embedded multimedia such as video and audio, and readers have the ability to highlight, annotate, and share information.

Blio isn’t yet available, but already it’s backed by Baker & Taylor, one of the world’s largest publishers, as well as Elsevier, Hachette, HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and Wiley. Blio users will have access to more than 1 million books altogether, its makers say—including a large selection of current bestselling titles.

Lisa Galloni, partner relationship manager for Blio, said the software has had tremendous support from publishers because it can preserve any book’s original layout and graphics.

Its flexibility is appealing as well, Galloni said.

“Because it’s not attached to any one device like a Kindle, it’s not restrictive,” she said.

As a user downloads eBooks, these are permanently stored in a personal virtual library, Galloni said. The entire library seamlessly migrates to up to five devices per user, any of which can be mobile.

“What’s great about it is that since all these devices are synched, you can read seamlessly,” she said. “Say I am reading a textbook on page 23, and then I leave my computer and decide to read on the bus via my iPhone. When I click on that book, it will still be on page 23.”

Because all texts are stored virtually, all of the user’s highlights and annotations are saved as well.

Users also reportedly can:

  • Create a personalized list of reference web sites, for one-touch lookup of highlighted phrases;
  • Adjust reading speed and font size;
  • Translate to or from English in an embedded translation window; and
  • Insert text, drawings, audio, images, or video notes directly into the content. These are saved and can be exported to create lists or study materials.

Another feature that could prove useful for assistive and language learning is Blio’s read-aloud function. A synthesized voice can read texts aloud using text-to-speech functionality, synchronized with follow-along word highlighting, so a user can look and listen at the same time.

Amazon.com’s popular Kindle eReader also includes text-to-speech capability, but in a concession to publishers, Amazon requires users to turn on this functionality themselves. Turning on this feature of the Kindle currently requires users to navigate through screens of text menus, which is a problem for users who are visually impaired.

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Wireless mic frequency change could affect colleges

Faculty members might have to use new wireless microphones after a recent FCC ruling.

Instructors might have to use new wireless microphones in lecture halls after a recent FCC ruling.

Colleges and universities that use wireless microphones operating on the 700 megahertz (MHz) frequency band have until June 12 to change the radio frequency or buy new equipment, according to a Jan. 15 ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The FCC’s decision is part of a larger government effort to clear the 700 MHz band for use by cell phones, digital TV transmissions, and emergency communications. About 25 percent of the country’s wireless microphones will have to be modified or replaced, according to federal projections.

The ruling affects schools, colleges, sports stadiums, churches, theater groups, musicians, and others who rely on wireless microphones to amplify sound. Some colleges using wireless mics to help their instructors or performers be heard more clearly could end up spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars to replace the banned equipment.

Violating the FCC’s order could result in penalties and fines, although the extent of this punishment isn’t yet known. Manufacturers of wireless microphones say many schools are unaware of the frequency change and its potential impact.

“I think a lot of people are still pretty vague on what’s going to happen” after the FCC’s June deadline passes, said Paul Harris, CEO of Aurora Multimedia, a New Jersey-based company that makes wireless microphones and has customers in higher education.

Schools “are probably going to keep using [the 700 MHz band] until it becomes a problem,” Harris said, adding: “If it’s not causing any problems, why should they have to stop using it?”

Harris said his company’s education customers won’t have to adjust to the new federal rules, because Aurora microphones use Bluetooth technology, avoiding use of the now-prohibited wireless spectrum.

Some microphone manufacturers, like California-based Califone, have launched blogs that explain which products fall within the new federal rules.

Tim Ridgway, a Califone spokesman, said the company recently switched former 700-megahertz products to the 900 megahertz frequency. Other Califone products, like the Installed Audio System, use infrared signals.

“We have followed this issue very closely since Califone products are so integral to the functioning of schools across the country,” Ridgway said.

The FCC has posted a list of companies and products that will violate its new 700 MHz rules. The product list is lengthy and includes hundreds of model numbers from more than a dozen manufacturers, as well as information about whether these devices can be modified to abide by the new guidelines.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the 700 MHz ruling will promote next-generation wireless technology and clear the airwaves for police and firefighters.

“Our decision will accelerate the buildout of 4G wireless networks and will prevent interference with first responders who rely on the 700-megahertz band for mission-critical communications,” Genachowski said in a prepared statement.

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Online language-learning programs thriving

With the growth of broadband connectivity and social networks, companies have introduced a wide range of internet-based language learning products, both free and fee-based, that allow students to interact in real time with instructors in other countries, gain access to their lesson plans wherever they are in the world, and communicate with like-minded virtual pen pals who are also trying to learn the same language, reports the New York Times. To make lessons more interesting, online language programs have introduced features such as crossword puzzles, interactive videos, and other games to reward users for making progress. Still, “the quality of feedback is important,” said Mike Levy, head of the school of languages and linguistics at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. “Sites with human contact work best.” RosettaStone, the best-known language program, now offers Totale, a $1,000 product that includes a traditional lesson-based module as well as an online community where you can play language-related games. “We offer modern-day pen pals facilitated with voice over IP,” said Tom Adams, the company’s chief executive. One of RosettaStone’s main competitors, TellMeMore, believes it has an advantage because its software not only teaches words and phrases, but includes a speech recognition component that analyses pronunciation, presents a graph of speech, and suggests how to perfect it. Livemocha, a two-year-old web start-up, offers free basic lessons in 30 languages. Users can upgrade to advanced courses with additional features on a monthly or six-month basis…

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iPhone users can now make internet-based calls

Users of Apple Inc.’s popular iPhone now might be able to save money by making internet-based phone calls over AT&T Inc.’s cellular network, reports the Los Angeles Times. Apple this week allowed new versions of several voice-over-IP services to begin working on the iPhone. Previously, iPhone users needed a wireless internet connection to make such calls, but the change will allow calls from anywhere that receives a strong enough 3G cellular signal. By using VoIP applications to sidestep the phone’s normal calling software, iPhone owners could avoid using up their monthly allocation of minutes from AT&T, potentially allowing them to choose cheaper plans. AT&T said in October that it had taken steps to allow iPhone users to make VoIP calls over the network, but Apple did not appear to approve those apps until this week. Riding the popularity of services such as Skype, internet telephony has become a fast-growing way for users to make low-cost domestic and international calls. Skype, which says it often has as many as 20 million users online at once, recently signaled its intention to submit its own 3G VoIP application to the iPhone…

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Nova Southeastern dean making IT grads more marketable

Irakliotis said computer science students should be encouraged by the rise of data mining in public policy.

Irakliotis said computer science students should be encouraged by the rise of data mining in public policy.

Leo Irakliotis doesn’t just want to develop academics and researchers. The newly appointed dean of Nova Southeastern University’s Graduate School of Computer and Information Sciences also wants tech-savvy business people who can talk the talk of the corporate world.

Irakliotis was named the Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based university’s computer program chief on Jan. 25 after 13 years as a professor at the University of Chicago, where his business acumen and community connections helped grow the school’s Computer Science Professional Program by 20 percent annually.

Academic immersion remains a central part of a computer science education, he said, but campus IT decision makers should help students develop the communication skills they’ll need to explain complicated IT concepts in simple terms—and network with the companies in search of young computer pros.

“We want them to be real professionals out there in the real world,” said Irakliotis, a computer engineering research assistant at Colorado State University before moving to Chicago. “We haven’t thought about that in our field as much as we should.”

Computer science schools can develop reputations as hubs for up-and-coming technology experts if their students demonstrate business know-how once they graduate and start corporate jobs, Irakliotis said.

“There’s a frustration in the real world that higher education doesn’t get it when it comes to information technology,” he said. “We often don’t understand the needs and requirements for those jobs. … We think training programmers is all that it takes, but as a programmer you need to be able to communicate with people who don’t understand technology. You can’t explain in scientific theory, but rather in business terms, why certain things are possible.”

In his new post at Nova Southeastern—a private research university with 28,000 students—Irakliotis said he hopes to direct graduates to computer fields that are in high demand, such as data mining or in-depth statistical analysis.

But first, he said, students should learn to communicate with their co-workers and bosses—not academics who speak the language of computer science.

“I’ve seen plenty of super-smart people who can’t write a memo to save their lives,” he said. “They have a Ph.D. and they can’t communicate at all.”

Irakliotis, 42, was born in Greece and moved to the U.S. in 1990 to pursue his master’s degree in physics at Miami University of Ohio. He earned his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering at Colorado State and worked as a teaching assistant at Miami University.

Irakliotis’s business experience includes two years with MCI, where he developed web-based teleconferencing systems, managed a $5 million initiative that focused on internet-based education services, and headed a technical internship program for college students.

Computer science graduates have gravitated to data mining in recent years as lawmakers have called for more research into how statistics can shape public policy, he said.

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Professors file petition against Google Books settlement

From UC Berkeley to Cornell, more than 80 professors have signed a petition against a pending settlement agreement between Google Inc. and authors and publishers, reports the Daily Californian. The petition calls into question provisions within the settlement that its signers say will give Google a “de facto monopoly” over books scanned in a digital library project. According to the petition, co-written by Pamela Samuelson, a UC Berkeley professor of law and information, two of the main concerns that professors have with the settlement are the amount of compensation authors will receive for the past scanning of books, and insufficient privacy protections. Jan. 28 is the last day for authors to reject the terms of the settlement, as well as to file objections to the settlement for the presiding judge to review. In a Jan. 27 campus memo in response to Samuelson’s petition, UC Berkeley professor of economics, business, and information Hal Varian said he sees the benefits the settlement would bring. “The agreement is not perfect, but I believe it to be a huge improvement over the status quo for authors, publishers, scholars, and the general public,” Varian said in the memo. “In my view, it deserves the enthusiastic support of all Berkeley faculty.”

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Minnesota song-sharing case heads for third trial

A trade group representing the major music labels on Jan. 27 said it will reject a reduced penalty for a central Minnesota woman found guilty of sharing 24 songs over the internet and instead will begin preparing for another trial to determine new damages, reports the Associated Press. The Recording Industry Association of America made the decision after attorneys for Jammie Thomas-Rasset rejected an offer from RIAA attorneys to settle for $25,000. It will be the third time the case, which dates back to 2006, will go to trial. Last year, a federal jury ruled Thomas-Rasset, a mother of four, willfully violated the copyrights on 24 songs. She was ordered to pay $1.92 million in damages, or $80,000 per song. Last week, Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis reduced the verdict to about $54,000 in damages, calling the jury’s penalty “monstrous and shocking.” The RIAA has until Feb. 8 to either accept or reject the reduced penalty. The group said it would do the latter, meaning a new trial will be scheduled to determine damages. The RIAA says that while a third trial is not in anyone’s best interest, the group is pursuing the case to show that Thomas-Rasset was responsible for copyright infringements and that serious damage was caused. “It is a shame that Ms. Thomas-Rasset continues to deny any responsibility for her actions, rather than accept a reasonable settlement offer and put this case behind her,” said RIAA spokeswoman Cara Duckworth…

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Investment losses cause steep drop in university endowments

Reflecting the difficult financial environment for higher education, university endowments lost an average of 18.7 percent in the last fiscal year, the worst returns since the Great Depression, reports the New York Times. A study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers and Commonfund, a nonprofit organization that manages university investments, found that universities with endowments over $1 billion had the greatest decline, an average of 20.5 percent. Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, the wealthiest universities, all lost more than 26 percent of their endowment values. At the same time, the study found, debt rose, especially at the largest universities, and gifts declined. The 2009 losses in endowment income come on top of an average loss of 3 percent in fiscal 2008. The three-year average return, which most universities use to determine how much of their assets to spend, was negative 2.5 percent, compared with the five-year average of 2.7 percent, and the 10-year average of 4 percent. “We’ve had two bad years, so the endowment performance this year will go a long way to determine how quickly endowment spending will recover in the future,” said John S. Griswold Jr., executive director of the Commonfund Institute. “Most universities continue to spend at a healthy rate despite the large declines in their value.”

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Google expands its social search test

Google’s Social Search service, which includes public content from users’ social networks in search results, is getting promoted to Google.com from the company’s Labs site, meaning it is no longer considered an early prototype, PC World reports. In the coming days, Google will let English-language users of its search engine see relevant links to items their social-networking contacts have posted publicly on the web. Social Search results also will appear in the Google Images engine, the company said in a Jan. 27 blog post. To use Social Search, users have to be signed in to their Google account. Google also recommends that people create a Google Profile, which they can populate with addresses to their blogs, social networks, photo-sharing accounts, and so on. Google can then harvest the contacts and connections in those sites, as well as in Google services such as Gmail and Google Reader, and index publicly available, relevant content for these users’ Social Search query results. Besides the Social Search effort, Google also is indexing public posts from social networks and returning links to them in its search results, even for users who aren’t signed in to their Google account…

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Obama: College affordability a key priority

Education was a key part of President Obama's State of the Union address.

Education was a key part of President Obama's State of the Union address.

Education is one of the few areas of the federal budget that would not see a spending freeze, if President Barack Obama gets his way this year—and making college more affordable will be one of his main priorities.

In his State of the Union speech on Jan. 27, Obama called on Congress to finish work on a measure to revitalize community colleges. And he called for a $10,000 tax credit to families for four years of college, as well as an increase in Pell Grants.

“In the 21st century, one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education,” Obama said.

He said college students should only have to devote 10 percent of their post-college income to repaying student loans.

“And let’s tell another one million students that when they graduate, … all of their debt will be forgiven after 20 years—and forgiven after 10 years if they choose a career in public service, because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college,” he added.

To make college more affordable, Obama urged lawmakers to pass a bill that would “end the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that go to banks for student loans.” The measure seeks to move college loans to a direct-lending model, in which the government would lend students the money they need for college—an idea that private lenders have been fighting since it was proposed last year. (See “Student lending landscape in flux.”) The House passed the measure in September, but the Senate has yet to vote on the bill.

The president also called on colleges and universities to “get serious about cutting their own costs—because they, too, have a responsibility to help solve this problem.”

Obama will ask Congress to boost federal spending on education by as much as $4 billion in the coming 2011 budget year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said earlier in the day.

Of that total, $3 billion is slated for elementary and secondary education programs ranging from teacher quality to student safety, and $1 billion will be for higher education.

The request for $4 billion would increase federal education spending by about 6 percent.

The Education Department also wants to eliminate six programs, deeming them duplicative or ineffective. The agency would consolidate 38 other programs into 11 programs to eliminate bureaucracy and red tape. Duncan said the details about which programs these proposals would include will be available next week, when the president sends his 2011 budget plan to Congress.

Duncan said Obama’s decision to boost education spending, at the same time he is calling for a freeze on other federal spending, shows how important the issue is to the president.

“Given how tough the economy is now, having a 6 percent increase at this point is extraordinary,” Duncan said. “You’re not seeing that happen anyplace else.”

Obama’s speech also addressed the economy, and the need for action to create the jobs of the 21st century.

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