Training of surgeons might take flight into virtual reality

Buffalo researchers have unveiled a simulator to train doctors to perform robotic surgery, similar to the way pilots use virtual-reality devices for flight training, reports the Buffalo News. The simulator could fill a glaring need in medicine. Demand for robotic surgery is growing faster than the ability to train surgeons, and the learning curve is considered steep, requiring dozens of cases to become proficient. Yet hospitals are reluctant to spend $2 million on a robotic surgery unit and use it for training inexperienced physicians. “While surgical practice does make perfect, we believe that through better training tools, the early learning curve of robot-assisted surgery can be shortened without jeopardizing the safety and welfare of patients,” said Dr. Khurshid A. Guru, director of the Center for Robotic Surgery and a surgeon at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Guru developed the Robotic Surgical Simulator, or RoSS, with Thenkurussi Kesavadas, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University at Buffalo and head of the school’s Virtual Reality Lab. The simulator approximates the feel of the Da Vinci Surgical System, robotic equipment that is controlled by a surgeon who sits at a console. That means the surgeon doesn’t have the normal sensation of feeling a knife in his hand. “With robotic surgery, you don’t have feedback, so you feel disconnected from the patient. That takes a lot of training to get used to,” Kesavadas said. He and Guru said hospitals and medical schools should incorporate robotic surgery simulators in the training of physicians in the same way that airlines use flight simulators to reduce pilot error…

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Tennessee colleges fight cell-phone cheating

As students head off to college with cell phones in hand, universities are wrestling with the issue of how to cope with high-tech temptations in the classroom, reports the Tennessean. Some teachers ban cell phones and laptops on sight. Others figure: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. At Middle Tennessee State University, history professor Janice Leone usually starts the semester with a word about cell phones—and that word is usually “no.” “They’re used to looking at it constantly. I’ve seen students actually text without looking, with their hands in their pockets,” said Leone, who sees the devices as more of a distraction than a temptation to cheat. “I have colleagues who tell their students, ‘If I see a cell phone, I’ll dock you 10 points.’ Others will say, ‘If I see a cell phone during a test, I’m assuming you’re cheating.'” MTSU, which has the largest undergraduate student population in the state, sees about 150 or so cases of academic misconduct each year, said assistant dean of student life Laura Sosh-Lightsy. About 10 to 20 of them will involve cheating with the help of a cell phone…

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Facebook messaging glitch raises fresh privacy concerns

Social networking behemoth Facebook reported a glitch in a software update that caused users’ private messages to land in the wrong in-boxes, stoking new fears over the site’s security, eWeek reports. A Facebook spokesperson released a statement via eMail acknowledging the problem and explained that while the problem was being fixed, the affected users were not able to access the site. “During our regular code push yesterday evening, a bug caused some misrouting to a small number of users for a short period of time,” the statement read. “Our engineers diagnosed the problem moments after it began and worked diligently to get everything back in its rightful place.” The statement did not include specifics on how widespread the problem was or how long it took the company to fix the hiccup. The incident puts Facebook back in the security spotlight as questions are again raised regarding the level of security and privacy of its users’ accounts…

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Universities mull role of tenure in UAH shootings

UAH students reportedly filed complaints about Bishop.

UAH students reportedly filed complaints about Bishop.

Questions about how universities handle tenure decisions have arisen after Amy Bishop, a professor at the University of Alabama Huntsville campus, was accused of killing three colleagues from the university’s biology department earlier this month.

Bishop reportedly was denied tenure—a distinction that ensures job security in academia—and complained about the university’s decision for months before the shootings, colleagues said in interviews with the Associated Press (AP).

Higher-ed administrators say the tedious six-year tenure process can be fraught with anxiety, and if candidates expect to earn tenure and are denied by campus officials, reactions can be unpredictable.

Votes cast by committee members who grant and deny tenure at UAH were not made public. Less than a week after the shootings, Bishop’s former students told the AP they signed a petition and complained to no avail about Bishop’s classroom conduct—complaints that could have been considered during her tenure evaluation.

The students said Bishop never made eye contact during conversations, taught by reading out of a textbook, and made frequent references to Harvard University, her beloved alma mater.

“We could tell something was off, that she was not like other teachers,” said nursing student Caitlin Phillips.

University President David Williams said student evaluations were one of many factors in the tenure evaluation process, but he was unaware of any student petition against Bishop.

Maintaining communication between committees assigned to evaluate tenure candidates and those seeking the distinction is critical in preparing both sides for the momentous decision, said Julie Underwood, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education.

“The worst thing is when [tenure candidates are] anxious or when they’re blindsided,” Underwood said. “You show them the path and give them support along the way so there are no surprises in the end.”

Underwood added: “The worst kind of position is when you’re in limbo and you’re anxious. That’s a bad situation, and it doesn’t do anything for people’s stress levels. They know they might be in a place of some trouble, but they’re not quite sure why … or how to correct it.”

At Wisconsin, she said, candidates meet regularly with committees that closely track their path to tenure, offering written evaluations that detail what officials approve of and what improvements must be made.

Colleges and universities should give tenure candidates “what they need to do to get back on the path or move forward on that path,” Underwood said.

Patrick Fiel, public safety advisor for ADT Security Services, which works with 15,000 schools and 1,300 colleges nationwide, said that when campus administrators are ready to hand down tenure rejections or other negative news to employees, they should have security personnel nearby in case of a violent reaction.

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New Windows software turns one PC into many

Microsoft announced Feb. 24 that it is ready with Windows MultiPoint Server 2010, a product that lets schools run a classroom full of systems using just a single computer, CNET reports. Multipoint Server allows up to 10 different setups—each with its own keyboard, mouse, and monitor—to run from a single server. “We heard clearly from our customers in education that to help fulfill the amazing promise of technology in the classroom, they needed access to affordable computing that was easy to manage and use,” Microsoft vice president Anthony Salcito said in a statement. NComputing, which already offers a similar approach using both Linux and standard versions of Windows, said it will incorporate MultiPoint Server across its product lineup. HP, ThinGlobal, Tritton, and Wyse also plan to offer products based on the software…

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Rutgers researchers warn of smart-phone privacy risk

Rutgers University researchers warned this week that smart phones could be susceptible to a virus that would turn them into eavesdropping or tracking devices, MyCentralJersey.com reports. As cell phones become more like personal computers, they are also taking on the same virus risks as the PC, but with the potential for far more serious consequences, the researchers claim. Researchers from the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences said devices such as the Blackberry or iPhone could be attacked by malware known as a “rootkit,” which attacks a computer‘s operating system and can only be detected using a special monitoring device not available for phones. Computer science professors Vinod Ganapathy and Liviu Iftode say these types of attacks on smart phones can be more devastating, because people carry phones everywhere they go. “What we’re doing today is raising a warning flag,” Iftode said in a statement. “The next step is to work on defenses.” The Rutgers team is presenting its findings at the 11th International Workshop on Mobile Computing Systems and Applications this week in Maryland…

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University of Virginia considers joint application for Google Fiber

The University of Virginia is considering applying jointly with the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County to become a pilot community for the installation of Google Fiber, a fiber-optic network that could produce internet speeds greater than 1 gigabit per second, reports the Cavalier Daily. That’s more than 100 times faster than the broadband connections most Americans can currently access, all at a price that Google says is competitive. “Google has announced publicly that it’s looking for communities to install ultra high-speed internet,” Charlottesville City Council member David Brown said about the nomination process, which Google will conduct by accepting applications and online votes until March 26. “We’re very interested.” (See “Google to build ultra-fast web networks.”) The university would benefit from the many opportunities this technology would bring. For example, faculty members and students living off campus would have access to the same internet speed provided by the university, said Jeffrey Plank, associate vice president for research…

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How to grow campus technology amid shrinking resources

Baker led CSU Northridge's conversion to Gmail, which saved the university $160,000 annually.

Baker led CSU Northridge’s conversion to Gmail, which saved $160,000 annually.

Being an IT official at a California university today requires a close look at any measures that can save the campus cash. But Hilary Baker, vice president for IT at California State University Northridge, has found ways to maintain—and even improve—technology services despite massive statewide budget cuts.

Baker, who came to the Northridge campus in 2006, said budget planning has taken on new significance during the country’s economic slump as university technology officials brace for a 5-percent budget cut this year and another 5-percent reduction next year.

“They probably are worse than any of us thought they would be,” Baker said, adding that open IT positions will be left unfilled this year as a cost-cutting measure.

California legislators cut the state university system’s budget by $584 million, or 20 percent, for the 2009-10 school year. The Northridge campus has operated this academic year with $41 million in cuts—24 percent of its overall budget.

Baker and her staff responded to the money squeeze in many ways, including the use of Google Gmail for student and faculty eMail accounts—saving $160,000 annually.

CSU Northridge also plans to use the open-source learning management system Moodle this year, instead of the popular WebCT and its expensive software license.

The university also joined the growing higher-education movement toward server virtualization, or using off-campus servers to maintain technology services rather than using space and massive amounts of energy storing and powering server racks on campus.

“We’ve made some very deliberate moves,” Baker said. “But it’s really allowed us to start a dialogue across campus departments … and plan out the overall direction and mission of the campus. We want other departments [and university officials] to know what we’re working on and why we’re working on it.”

Before her time at CSU Northridge, Baker—who moved from England to California in 1978 to attend UCLA—was the chief information officer at Pepperdine University in Malibu.

In two years there, Baker headed efforts to upgrade classroom technology standards, manage the technical aspects of campus construction projects, and remodel Pepperdine’s library to include an IT/library information commons area.

From 1999-2004, Baker worked in the state university’s Office of the Chancellor as a senior director for IT services, where she led the largest technology infrastructure project in American higher education. She created finances, human resources, and a host of other categories across 23 campuses that included 400,000 students and 45,000 faculty members.

Baker said teaming up with other CSU campuses has emerged as a cost-savings measure this year. The Northridge campus in March will be one of eight institutions participating in a pilot program that forms a virtual information security center, allowing the campuses to share information security resources.

“It’s a new concept, and it’s pretty exciting for us,” Baker said.

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Google executives convicted over online bullying video

In a case with huge implications for web site operators, an Italian court on Feb. 24 convicted three Google executives of privacy violations because they did not act quickly enough to pull down an online video that showed bullies abusing an autistic boy, reports the Associated Press. In the first such criminal trial of its kind, Judge Oscar Magi sentenced the three to a six-month suspended sentence and absolved them of defamation charges. Google called the decision “astonishing” and said it would appeal. “The judge has decided I’m primarily responsible for the actions of some teenagers who uploaded a reprehensible video to Google video,” Google’s global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer, who was convicted in absentia, said in a statement. The trial could help define whether the internet in Italy is an open, self-regulating platform or if content must be better monitored for abusive material. Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., had said it considered the trial a threat to freedom on the internet because it could force providers to attempt an impossible task—prescreening the thousands of hours of footage uploaded every day onto sites like YouTube. “We will appeal this astonishing decision,” Google spokesman Bill Echikson said at the courthouse. “We are deeply troubled by this decision. It attacks the principles of freedom on which the internet was built.”

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Librarians to colleges: Keep on streaming videos for courses

The Library Copyright Alliance has published a legal analysis of the use of streaming video in higher education, NewTeeVee reports, and the bottom line could be good news for colleges: Instructors are allowed to use streaming videos as part of their courses without obtaining special licenses to do so. The alliance, which counts the American Library Association and the Association of College & Research Libraries as its members, implores educators to “know and exercise their rights” to online video use. This position likely won’t go over well with publishers of educational videos, which have been stepping up their efforts to get universities to obtain special streaming licenses if they want to include videos on course web sites. The Association for Information and Media Equipment (AIME) threatened UCLA with a copyright lawsuit over its video streaming late last year, and the school responded by shutting down its online video platform. AIME has been arguing that displaying a movie on a web site isn’t the same thing as showing it in a classroom, even if there are access controls for the online video in place. But the Library Copyright Alliance believes there is no need to pay for these licenses in many occasions, as amendments to copyright law that include distance education also cover the display of films through class web sites…

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