Virtual lab at Carnegie Mellon wins SPORE prize

A virtual lab at Carnegie Mellon won an prize for its originality.

Students in introductory chemistry classes often start off with learning how to balance chemical equations. The educational message, according to Carnegie Mellon University chemistry professor David Yaron, seems to be, if you take in this stuff that’s not very interesting, you may get to use it later.

Aiming to substitute that approach with activities that allow students to design and carry out experiments more like real chemists, Yaron and some of his colleagues in the field developed the ChemCollective, virtual laboratories and online activities for introductory chemistry students. Because of their innovation and effectiveness as teaching tools, the software and corresponding website have been chosen to receive the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE).

With virtual experiments such as one that allows students to use chemistry concepts to solve a murder in a research group whose work focuses on an antitoxin for spider bites, the ChemCollective offers the drama and intrigues of chemistry to students early on, Yaron says.

I hope there are some students who don’t think they’re interested in chemistry or don’t think they’re good at chemistry who might get drawn in, he says.

The Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) is intended to single out the very best online materials freely available to science educators. The acronym SPORE suggests a reproductive element adapted to develop, often under duress, into something new. It also refers to the intention that the winning projects may be the seed of significant progress in science education, despite the many challenges to educational innovation.

Science publishes an article by each award recipient explaining the winning project. The article about the ChemCollective is in the journal’s April 30 edition.

“Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science,” says Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts. “We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding online resources reach a wider audience. Each winning website will be featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to valuable, free online resources.”


Rosetta Stone loses court case against Google

Foreign-language education company Rosetta Stone Inc. has lost a court case in which it sued Google Inc. for allowing rivals to advertise copycat software when Rosetta trademarks are used in search terms, reports the Associated Press. Rosetta Stone said it was “deeply disappointed” that its suit was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The company said the decision will “permit Google to continue to create consumer confusion” by allowing counterfeit products to be sold using its trademarks. Rosetta Stone said that Google knows counterfeit software is being advertised using its AdWords system and takes no effective steps to stop the activity. The company said it will consider an appeal upon reviewing the court’s written decision. Google said in a statement it was pleased with the decision, and that the use of trademarks as search words that trigger competing ads was legal and supported by other court precedents. “Users searching on Google benefit from being able to choose from a variety of competing advertisers, and we found no evidence that legitimate use of trademarks as keyword triggers or in the text of advertisements confuses consumers,” said Google’s senior litigation counsel, Adam Barea…

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Software update could turn Kindle users into a cloud-based book club

Amazon has posted an overview of what Kindle owners can expect in its version 2.5 software update slated for late May, and a key feature of the update will integrate online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, BetaNews reports. This will be the first major feature upgrade to Amazon’s e-Book device line since the launch of the Kindle DX last year. After the launch of that model, there was a single software update, which moderately improved a user’s experience by stretching battery life and adding native PDF support. But with that update, one hand gave while the other took away: It also turned off the default text-to-speech option, amid the disputes it caused with the Author’s Guild. Now, version 2.5 of the software will add long-overdue features to the device. For instance, users will be able to share their highlighted passages with the rest of the world directly from their Kindle. These will be able to be posted on Facebook or Twitter, or will be counted in Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” of e-Books. In other words, users will be able to see what the Kindle community thinks are the best lines from their books or books they’re looking to purchase. There also will be more font sizes, improved image clarity, and a password protection option in the update…

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Steve Jobs attacks Adobe Flash as unfit for iPhone

For iPhone users who’ve been wondering whether their devices will support Flash technology for web video and games anytime soon, the answer is finally here, straight from Steve Jobs, reports the Associated Press: No. In a detailed offensive against the technology owned by Adobe Systems Inc., Apple’s CEO wrote April 29 that Flash has too many bugs, drains batteries too quickly, and is too oriented to personal computers to work on the iPhone and iPad. This is not the first time Jobs has publicly criticized Flash, but the statement was his clearest, most definitive—and longest—on the subject. In his 1,685-word “Thoughts on Flash,” Jobs laid out his reasons for excluding Flash—the most widely used vehicle for videos and games on the internet—from Apple’s blockbuster handheld devices. He cited “reliability, security, and performance,” and the fact that Flash was designed “for PCs using mice, not for touch screens using fingers” as some of the reasons Apple will continue to keep the program off its devices. But he said the most important reason is Flash puts a third party between Apple and software developers. In other words, developers can take advantage of improvements from Apple only if Adobe upgrades its own software, Jobs wrote. Adobe representatives did not have an immediate comment. But in a March 23 conference call, President and CEO Shantanu Narayen said his company is “committed to bringing Flash to any platform on which there is a screen.”

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Professor to students: Text away

Student's text message questions are screened before they're posted to a large screen.

Students' text-message questions are screened before they're posted for peers to read.

Georgia State University students who don’t want to yell their questions from the back of a cavernous lecture hall now have another option: They can send text messages to their professor, who reads the queries from an overhead screen.

David McDonald, director of emerging technologies and an associate professor in the Atlanta-based university’s business school, is inviting the use of text messaging during class while many educators are instituting strict rules against the practice.

The texting program—similar to handheld student response systems—is being used in about 15 Georgia State business courses this school year.

Students’ names and phone numbers will not be included in their on-screen questions, but texting queries will raise students’ class participation grades. Each question is screened before it’s posted on the ticker for the class to read.

“Rather than trying to fight [texting], let’s use it,” McDonald said, adding that that text system has a “very strict” filtering feature that censors obscenities. “If they’re going to be doing it anyway, have them pay attention to what their teacher is saying, not what Ashton Kutcher is Twittering.”

Text-messaged questions, McDonald said, are compiled on a class web page—known as a wiki—where other students can answer the questions.

“It creates a knowledge base, and a knowledge base has real power,” he said. “And students love to show how smart they are.”

Georgia State is working with mobile technology company Entercation to bring the text-to-screen technology to more lecture halls, according to a company announcement. The texting option could appeal to students too shy to ask questions in front of hundreds of peers or students whose primary language isn’t English, communications experts said.

“This will allow shy students to have a voice,” said Michelle Cimino, author of two books on technology etiquette, including NETiquette, Online Etiquette Tips for Adults & Teens. “It’s a way to relay a question that they might feel embarrassed to share in a huge auditorium in front of their peers. … At least this way, the professor is engaging his students in a modern way in a language they can understand and think is cool.”

J.B. Vick, president of Entercation, said the same text-to-screen technology is used at professional and college sporting events, where fans can text and have their messages scroll across the stadium’s big screen. If other campuses adopt McDonald’s text-message approach, Entercation could make $25 million annually from classroom use, Vick said in a company statement.

Electronic communication, whether by text message, eMail, or instant message, has become pervasive in colleges and universities, according to recent research. Eighty-four percent of students who participated in a 2007 Fresno State University study said they “regularly” use their cell phones to text, and seven in 10 said they had sent and received texts during class.

Research from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows that half of teenagers surveyed send 1,500 text messages a month, and one-third of survey respondents send 100 texts every day, or 3,000 per month.


HP buying Palm for $1.2 billion

Palm, the company that invented the PDA but has struggled to stay relevant in recent years, will be acquired by computing giant Hewlett-Packard for $1.2 billion, CNET reports. The deal already has been approved by both companies’ boards of directors and is expected to close by the end of July. For Palm, it’s a quiet end to what was once one of the most dynamic of technology companies. Spun out of the computer networking maker 3Com 10 years ago, Palm once held more than 70 percent of the then nascent handheld computing market. But several years of management struggles, product misfires, and tough competition from companies ranging from Microsoft and Research in Motion to Apple and Google have turned the innovator into an also-ran. With HP, Palm’s still well-regarded technology (particularly its new WebOS mobile operating system) finds an owner with both deep pockets and familiarity with the inner workings of Palm. Todd Bradley, executive vice president of HP’s Personal Systems Group, was CEO of Palm from 2002 through 2005. “Palm’s innovative operating system provides an ideal platform to expand HP’s mobility strategy and create a unique HP experience spanning multiple mobile connected devices,” Bradley said in a statement. “And Palm possesses significant IP assets and has a highly skilled team.” Early indications are that HP is interested in Palm’s Web OS and array of mobile products, ranging from tablets and netbooks to phones. Palm also brings a healthy patent portfolio, which has become increasingly important as both Microsoft and Apple have in recent months sought to enforce their own mobile technology patents…

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UGA wraps up investigation of music-downloading extortion

University of Georgia police have closed a months-long investigation into a former employee’s alleged scheme to shake down students who used UGA’s computer network to illegally download music and other copyrighted material, reports the Athens Banner-Herald. When police arrested internet security analyst Dorin Dehelean three months ago, they were sure he had tried to extort more students than the woman who reported him, UGA police Chief Jimmy Williamson said. Following Dehelean’s arrest, UGA police assured students they would not face criminal charges or administrative sanctions for violating the university’s computer policy if they had a similar story to tell police. But no one else came forward. That means a Clarke County grand jury will consider whether to indict Dehelean on a single count of theft by extortion, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. As a security analyst with UGA’s Enterprise Information Technology Services, Dehelean would receive notices of copyright violations from music and movie companies, then notify Student Judiciary about infractions. He contacted a student Jan. 25 and told her she’d been caught violating the copyrighted material policy, but he could make the infraction disappear for $800, police said. The student told Dehelean that she didn’t have the money, and after they negotiated for a lower price, the student told the police…

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Turnitin used by all universities in Singapore

iParadigms, creator of the plagiarism prevention program Turnitin, has announced that its software has been adopted by all four universities in Singapore, PR Newswire reports. Turnitin is used across the universities’ curricula and is available to tens of thousands of educators and students. At the National University of Singapore, where Turnitin has been used since 2002, Associate Professor Brian Farrell in the Department of History says: “In my own experience with Turnitin, I have found it to be useful in doing four important things: categorically exposing crude and massive plagiarism; providing a graphic illustration of general student practices regarding the use of sources and the composition of research essays; providing a graphic teaching aid to instruct students on the problem of cut and paste; and sending a general signal about plagiarism, academic culture, and responsibilities.” More than a half-million educators and millions of students worldwide now use Turnitin, iParadigms says, and the program is available in 10 languages…

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Stanford students’ video helps effort to save preemies

Through an experimental class at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business that tries to use social media for the public good, a trio of students posted a video to YouTube this spring promoting an organization that hopes to save the lives of millions of prematurely born babies in India and other developing nations by creating an innovative, low-cost baby incubator—and now the video has gone viral, reports the San Jose Mercury News. A version of the students’ video on behalf of the nonprofit organization Embrace will soon be appearing on digital billboards across India, after it was noticed on YouTube by the CEO of India’s first interactive digital billboard company. That instant digital connection from Palo Alto to Mumbai—unthinkable before the era of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter—is the focus of “The Power of Social Technology,” a new class that Stanford business professor Jennifer Aaker was inspired to teach after watching one of her students launch an effort on the internet to find South Asian bone marrow donors for two friends who were critically ill with leukemia. Enlisting an all-star cast to help teach the course, ranging from entertainer and Twitter apostle MC Hammer to executives with Pixar and the international micro loans organization Kiva, Aaker is trying to make the point that a company can earn a profit and help social change, and that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube can be powerful tools for that change…

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Lots of technology, but we’re missing the point

Technology is not a universal problem-solver.

Technology is not a universal problem-solver.

Though I’m a technology junkie, I continue to revel in the fact that so much of the world’s information is never more than a few keystrokes away. I remember the days of those terrible old search engines that returned 10 million results, most of them irrelevant. I marvel now at the ability of Google or Bing or Wolfram Alpha to deliver pretty much what I ask for.

Educators, from K to Ph.D., have assumed that our most foundational task is to put the best technology into the hands of as many people as possible. Once they have the tools, the assumption goes, our students can flourish. Whether delivering unbelievably cheap laptops or sophisticated scientific databases, education is in a providing mood despite the economic downturn. Many are predicting that the result will be a utopia in which education and technology create the super-student of the future.

My institution—Trinity Western University, in Langley, British Columbia—has technology: lots of it, from campus-wide Wi-Fi, to extensive library databases, to laptops in the hands of most students. One would think that utopia was just on the horizon, and the coming techno-student was emerging before our eyes. But, as necessary as technology is to education, something crucial has been left out. The give-them-technology movement is missing the point.

Let me illustrate: A student comes to me, an academic reference librarian, with a list of ISSNs (barcode-like numbers that identify journals and distinguish them from one another). She asks, “Can you tell me how to find these articles?” I see a whole series of erroneous notions running through her mind even as I tell her, “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t.” What went wrong? Well…

• She confused an ISSN with a library call number. An ISSN can only tell her what journal the article came from, not identify a specific article.

• She got the ISSNs from a journal database, not realizing that she had already found the needed citations but had ignored them in favor of copying down the ISSNs.

• She likely already had the full text of the article as a PDF attached to her citation, but now she lost it, because she copied down the ISSN and then closed down her session in the database.

The average college student can’t tell you the difference between an article and a journal, believes that you can get the full text of most academic journal articles from a Google search or at least Google Scholar, and has no idea what a subject heading is.

The average college student admits to finding even Google frustrating. The average college student is only vaguely aware of the range of journal and related databases to which the college subscribes at great cost. Boolean searching, use of advanced search options, and identification of criteria for evaluation of information are all low on the radar of the average college student. The average student submits a bibliography for a research paper that is 4 to 6 references long and contains no journal articles.

Throwing technology at our students is missing the point. It’s like saying, “Give them cars, and they will drive,” about a non-driving population. Certainly they will, and we can watch in horror as they ramble over the sidewalks and lawns of the nation until they inevitably crash into one another. Cars without drivers who have passed a driver education course are tools for mayhem.