Barnes & Noble launches eBook software for students

One-third of students are comfortable with eBooks, according to a study.

One-third of students are comfortable with eBooks, according to a study.

Barnes & Noble has joined the growing list of companies and organizations giving college students electronic alternatives to their pricey textbooks with the book retailer’s free NOOKstudy software that could save students 40 percent at the bookstore.

The NOOKstudy software will be usable on PCs, Macs, the Apple iPad, and, of course, the Nook when the program is released in August. More than 500,000 free eBooks will be available through the software, according to the Barnes & Noble web site, including some texts that might be required for college students.

Barnes & Noble will partner with learning management giant Blackboard in its NOOKstudy launch, allowing students who use Blackboard’s online learning platform to buy and read texts available in the NOOKstudy library, which will be stocked with more than 1 million eBooks in all.

Students will be able to highlight passages, take notes, and search for those notes in NOOKstudy eBooks, according to the Barnes & Noble announcement.

Campus officials said NOOKstudy marks another way students can trim their ever-growing textbook bills with downloadable tomes accessible on a range of devices.

College students spend $800 to $1,100 a year on textbooks, according to government and industry reports. The cost of books has tripled between 1986 and 2004, rising more than 5 percent every year.

Carolyn Davis, director of auxiliary services at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., said the free software that can be downloaded on PCs and Macs would be embraced on the 8,000-student campus because all freshmen are required to have laptops.

Barnes & Noble operates the college’s bookstore.

“Our students here are already encouraged to be [tech savvy],” Davis said, adding that students will be able to access NOOKstudy on up to two devices. “And this gives us a chance to serve and retain our customer base. … We want to do anything we can to gain their loyalty, and this is just one more way to do that.”

If students are able to find discounted textbooks using Barnes & Noble’s eBook software, Davis said, they won’t have to shell out hundreds of dollars every semester for books that don’t pertain to their interests or concentrations, but are required by professors.

“It’s become cost-prohibitive for many students, so it really becomes a matter of putting down an awful lot of money for a book you may or may not be using for your major,” she said.

At least one student group is skeptical about the latest addition to the eBook movement. Because many textbooks are not available for a discount when bought online, and because students can’t rent or sell back their used electronic books, the eBook model often costs more than traditional texts, according to research conducted by the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), a Chicago-based organization that advocates for college students.

Nicole Allen, a spokeswoman for Student PIRGs, said that web-based books are widely seen as the cost-effective alternative to pricey textbooks, but “if you do the math, in a lot of cases, students are actually losing money by going to a digital book.”

College students on campuses with textbook rental programs spend $130-$240 annually on books, according to a Student PIRGs study – just a fraction of the textbook costs at institutions without rental programs.


Is computer science a dead end in the workforce?

As software development tools grow more advanced and more coding moves offshore, the need for advanced development expertise is on the decline, InfoWorld reports. The future is bright for programmers, we’re often told. And yet, some analysts now suggest the picture is not as rosy for recent computer science grads as we would think. According to the latest data from the U.K.’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), computer science graduates in the United Kingdom now have the hardest time finding work of graduates in any subject, with an unemployment rate of 17 percent. It should come as no surprise that legal and medical students fare significantly better — the latter having a jobless rate of practically nil — but the HESA data suggest that new students might be better off pursuing foreign languages, marketing, or even creative arts, rather than computer science. While the situation in the United States might not be so dire, in truth few companies share Google’s zeal for academic credentials when hiring new developers. Many are willing to accept self-taught programmers, particularly if they have other skills relevant to the business. Some have implemented in-house training programs to allow employees from other disciplines to transition into software development roles. And as development tools themselves become more sophisticated and accessible, even workers with little formal knowledge of programming are trying their hands at creating applications. All are ominous signs that demand for computer science education in the job market might be on the wane…

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Grades don’t drop for college Facebook fiends

According to new research out of Northwestern University, students who use social networking sites don’t seem to suffer academically, Ars Technica reports. In a recent paper titled “Predictors and consequences of differentiated practices on social network sites,” researchers found that heavy use of sites like Facebook and MySpace doesn’t affect college students’ grade point averages. In fact, it’s the usual suspects such as gender, ethnic background, and parental education that appear to have more of a determining factor in GPA than any kind of Facebook addiction. According to the researchers’ data, female students tend to have higher grades than male ones, and white students have higher grades than non-Hispanic African-American students. Students whose parents have college degrees have higher GPAs than those whose parents only have a high school diploma or lower. The researchers then added in data about overall internet use and social networking use, and found that there were no significant differences. “The most prevalent findings… are the persisting differences between respondents with different demographic backgrounds,” reads the paper. Indeed, internet and social network use didn’t affect the difference in GPAs between male and female or white and African American students. However, social network use did eliminate the difference in GPAs between students whose parents had differing levels of higher education. In fact, when controlling for certain demographics, the researchers found a positive relationship between internet use and GPA…

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What to do with passwords once you create them

Password management isn’t sexy, but it’s a problem that touches everyone who touches a computer, CNET reports. Not only are people forced to create new passwords at a dizzying level as they join social networks, do eCommerce, and deal with frequently expiring passwords at work, but there are new and novel password theft methods all the time. Just this week, Mozilla disabled a Firefox add-on that was intercepting login data and sending it on to a remote server. Cryptography expert Bruce Schneier used to write his passwords down on a slip of paper and keep it in his wallet. Today, he uses a free Windows password-storage tool called Password Safe that he designed five years ago and released into the open-source community. The desktop application lets users remember only one master password to access their password list. But Schneier still recommends the paper method for people who don’t have their computers with them at all times like he does. “Either write the passwords down and put them in your wallet, or use something like Password Safe,” he said in an interview. An informal survey of a dozen or so security experts reveals that some of them still rely on the paper and pen method. One respondent even admitted to succumbing to the post-it-note under the keyboard strategy. (If you do choose to write the passwords down you should avoid including the Web site or other identifying information, obviously…)

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College CIO: Embrace virtualization, but not too much

Virtualization can sometimes cause IT headaches, Herleman says.

Virtualization can sometimes cause IT headaches, Herleman says.

Using one computer to power many has saved money as college budgets have been slashed, but too much of this good thing can lead to “virtualization sprawl”—an emerging problem that one IT leader is determined to avoid.

Karl Herleman, CIO at Miami Dade College (MDC), has, like many technology decision makers, moved his eight-campus school toward virtualization in the past three years. This means one computer in a campus computer lab can power several machines, reducing the IT department’s costs and saving the college on its monthly energy bills.

MDC has trimmed its energy consumption by 10 percent since 2008, thanks largely to virtualization, Herleman said.

And while virtualizing computers and trimming budgets will bring a smile to the faces of deans and provosts, Herleman said, creating too many virtualized machines on a college campus can create a “sprawl” effect that makes it difficult for the college’s IT team to manage the growing number of computers.

“You look at [virtualizing computers] and think, ‘Wow, it’s so easy to create these virtual machines and eliminate the need to buy a bunch of hardware,’” said Herleman, 45, MDC’s CIO for four years after working for technology research company Gartner as an enterprise architect for seven years. “Then you realize you have to deal with a whole new set of problems that come along with that. It can sometimes be worse than it was before you [virtualized machines].”

Colleges and universities will encounter virtualization sprawl if technology officials approve a new computer to support a simple internet application, for example, when that program easily could have been stored on an existing campus server.

Herleman said sprawl is sometimes unavoidable. Some programs don’t operate easily on the same machine, forcing IT departments to approve another virtualized machine to keep programs away from each other on the same hard drive.

With 20 percent of his IT staff cut in the past two years, Herleman said he’s had to become more selective in where the department’s money is directed—targeting campus network programs that will make critical college data available to any employee who needs the data to do his or her job.

“You’re neglecting those strategic initiatives because you don’t have the bodies to do it,” he said. “It might be affecting your service level. … But when you have fewer people, you can get pretty crafty, and you definitely streamline and always try to make things leaner.”

Herleman said the prospect of federal stimulus money running out next year will force college CIOs to focus on IT efficiency, because many open positions won’t be filled and retiring employees likely won’t be replaced immediately. Instead of doing more with less, he said, many campus technology chiefs might be forced to do less with less.

“There is a point where there is no way you can improve the efficiencies beyond where you are,” Herleman said in acknowledging the effects of budget constraints. “I think we have reached that point in higher ed.”


Apple to address iPhone troubles on July 16

Apple Inc. said it will hold a press conference on July 16 to discuss the latest iPhone model, which has been beset by complaints about its antenna, reports the Associated Press. On July 12, Consumer Reports said careful testing has confirmed user reports that holding the phone over a particular spot drastically reduces the signal strength it receives. Covering the spot with duct tape or a case alleviates the problem. Apple hasn’t commented on Consumer Reports’ finding yet. Company watchers are speculating that the company might give iPhone buyers its “Bumper” case, which normally costs $29. The phone went on sale three weeks ago and outsold previous iPhone launches in its first three days, with 1.7 million units sold. Complaints about the signal strength soon followed. In an early response, Apple acknowledged that holding the phone in a certain way impeded the wireless signal somewhat, but said this happens with many other phones; Consumer Reports said it tested other phones, and said none of them had significant loss of signal strength when held…

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Blackboard to include McGraw-Hill content

Blackboard Inc., a provider of software to schools and colleges, on July 14 said it will make content and learning technology from The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. available to its customers, BusinessWeek reports. Financial terms of the partnership were not disclosed. Blackboard said it will combine McGraw-Hill’s assessment engines and adaptive learning tools with its own Blackboard Learn products. McGraw-Hill’s tools allow teachers to manage course content, create assignments, and track students’ performance. The publisher’s tools also can deliver content to students based on individual strengths and weaknesses. The combined system is expected to be ready for classroom use in early 2011, Blackboard said…

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Government working on wireless spectrum inventory

Federal officials are beginning work on a comprehensive inventory of the nation’s radio spectrum in hopes of finding more capacity for wireless high-speed internet connections, reports the Associated Press. Federal Communications Commission Julius Genachowski said his agency is working closely with the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration to catalog current spectrum usage. The FCC oversees spectrum allocated to commercial wireless carriers, as well as state and local spectrum uses. The NTIA manages spectrum use by federal agencies such as the Defense Department. The FCC and NTIA hope to identify airwaves that could be reallocated for wireless broadband services, including the cutting-edge 4G services now being rolled out by the big mobile carriers. The agencies also hope to promote wireless services that rely on unlicensed spectrum, such as Wi-Fi. The spectrum inventory marks the first step toward implementing one of the key recommendations in the FCC’s national broadband plan: a proposal to free up another 500 megahertz of spectrum over the next 10 years. The wireless industry currently holds roughly 500 megahertz of spectrum…

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No known identity theft from virus on OU computer

A virus infiltrated an Oklahoma University employee’s laptop that had names and Social Security numbers of OU students. No identity theft has been reported, but at least one OU student is upset that it took two weeks to learn of the virus attack, reports the Oklahoman. OU architecture student Kelsey Krueger said she learned of the threat on June 24 when the OU bursar’s office sent her and other students a message about the incident and what to do about it. On June 10, the OU information technology department identified the virus, commonly known as Zeus of Zbod, and the data it might have compromised. Krueger said she spoke to “eight or nine” people at the bursar’s, admissions, and information technology offices to try and find out how widespread and dangerous the breach actually was. “Fourteen days had gone by; who knows what could have happened?” she said. “Computer viruses can happen to anybody; it’s common, and that’s not the university’s fault. It’s just that they waited so long to tell us about something this serious, and then I wasted my time trying to get answers.” On July 12, OU’s Information technology Department sent a mass eMail reminding faculty and staff about the dangers of viruses and malware and offered tips on protecting themselves. “Information was provided on how to obtain free initial fraud alerts,” said Catherine Bishop, OU’s vice president of communication, “and the university offered to pay the cost of an additional year after the initial alert expires, if the person so desires…”

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Google putting its digital library to the test

Google Book Search has about 12 million books available.

Google Book Search has about 12 million books available.

Google Inc. is giving researchers nearly a half-million dollars to test the academic value of its rapidly growing online library.

The grants announced July 14 will be used to help pay for 12 humanities projects studying questions that will require sifting through thousands of books to reach meaningful conclusions.

Google is hoping the research will validate its long-held belief that making electronic copies of old books will bring greater enlightenment to the world. The company’s critics, though, have argued that the internet search leader has trampled over copyright laws to build a commanding early lead in digital books so it can boost profits.

The winners of Google’s “digital humanities” awards include a project at George Mason University seeking to draw a more accurate portrait of the Victorian age through a deeper analysis of the vocabulary used in the books from that period.

Other researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Washington are studying tools and techniques for automated library analysis.

The 23 scholars receiving $479,000 in grants are scattered across 15 universities. They’re eligible to apply next year for the remaining $521,000 that Google has budgeted for its digital humanities awards.

“Over the next year, we’ll provide selected subsets of the Google Books corpus—scans, text, and derived data such as word histograms—to both the researchers and the rest of the world as laws permit,” wrote Google’s Jon Orwant in a blog post about the grants.

Google set out in 2004 to make electronic copies of all the books in the world to feed more compelling material into its online search engine and make more human knowledge available to anyone with an internet connection.

But those book-scanning ambitions quickly became bogged down in legal battles over copyright issues that still haven’t been resolved. Google has made digital copies of more than 12 million books so far, but they aren’t all available to see because of a dispute centered on out-of-print books still protected by copyrights.

Google is still awaiting a federal judge’s ruling on a proposed settlement that would give the company the digital rights to the out-of-print books. The U.S. Department of Justice, consumer watchdog groups, and several of Google’s rivals have objected to the agreement on the grounds that the settlement threatens to give Google too much power in the emerging market for digital books.

The projects and researchers receiving Google’s Digital Humanities Research Awards are:

• Steven Abney and Terry Szymanski, University of Michigan: Automatic Identification and Extraction of Structured Linguistic Passages in Texts.

• Elton Barker, The Open University; Eric C. Kansa, University of California-Berkeley; Leif Isaksen, University of Southampton, United Kingdom: Google Ancient Places (GAP): Discovering historic geographical entities in the Google Books corpus.

• Dan Cohen and Fred Gibbs, George Mason University: Reframing the Victorians.

• Gregory R. Crane, Tufts University: Classics in Google Books.