Researchers: Digital devices deprive brain of needed downtime

Cell phones, which in the last few years have become full-fledged computers with high-speed internet connections, can make the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect, reports the New York Times: When people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas. At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory of the experience. The researchers suspect that the findings also apply to how humans learn. “Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them, and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

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Early iPad adopter to use art application this fall

Art Authority will be used in two Seton Hill art courses this fall.

Art Authority will be used in two Seton Hill art courses this fall.

Seton Hill University, one of the first campuses to board the Apple iPad bandwagon before the device was released in April, announced Aug. 23 that its art history students will use an iPad application that allows access to more than 40,000 sculptures and paintings.

The university’s art faculty and instructors will use the iPad application known as Art Authority in the campus’s Modern Art and Italian Renaissance Art courses.

University officials said the iPad app would offer students a way to review classic and modern artworks outside of class without relying on static images in textbooks.

“Being able to instantly access visual information streamlines instructional technology in a fun, exploratory way,” said Pati Beachley, associate professor of art and director of Seton Hill’s art program.

Officials at Seton Hill, a 2,000-student university in Greensburg, Pa., said in March that all incoming full-time freshmen would receive an iPad beginning in the fall 2010 semester. All other students will have a chance to opt into the iPad program, campus officials added.

The university “absorbed the cost of the iPad,” because putting Apple’s much-anticipated eReader devices in students’ hands marked a “strategic decision to shift resources and invest in technologies that optimize the students’ access to resources,” said Seton Hill President JoAnne Boyle.

Freshmen will pay a $500 technology fee starting in the fall 2010 semester, according to a university announcement.

Seton Hill was included on a national ranking of the five best colleges and universities for prospective students interested in mobile technology. The ranking was released by IvyWise, a New York-based counseling company.

The school’s partnership with Art Authority creators Open Door Networks Inc. and Project A Inc. will let students scroll through thousands of works of art from every era by the artist’s name or the artistic period.

Alan Oppenheimer, president of Oregon-based Open Door Networks, said when he heard about Seton Hill’s iPad policy, “we immediately realized what a great opportunity it was to understand how an app like Art Authority can supplement that type of learning environment, and how in turn that environment can supplement and evolve Art Authority.”

The Seton Hill-Art Authority deal provides exposure for the app’s developers, a useful supplement for art students, and a mobile tool that will draw student interest, making the agreement a “huge win-win-win situation, and the way of the future,” Oppenheimer said.

Maureen Vissat, an assistant professor of art at Seton Hill, said Art Authority’s artist biographical information and voluminous galleries of works from the Renaissance and modern eras would add a new visual element to course work.

In a statement, Vissat said Art Authority would “be a valuable tool to supplement traditional texts,” adding that she was “eager to work with students to discover how to make the art of the past more immediate and accessible.”


Replacing a pile of textbooks with an iPad

A new company called Inkling hopes to break the standard textbook model and help textbooks enter the interactive age by letting students share and comment on the texts and interact with fellow students, reports the New York Times. Matt MacInnis, founder and chief executive of Inkling, said the company wants to offer a textbook experience that moves far beyond simply downloading a PDF document to an iPad. One unique feature the service offers is the ability to discuss passages of a book with other students or professors. By selecting a piece of text, you can leave a note for others to read and develop a conversation around the text. The iPad application also breathes life into textbooks by giving publishers the tools to create interactive graphics within a book. In a demo version of the application, available for downloading from the iTunes store, “The Elements of Style” includes quizzes that help students learn by touching and interacting with the screen. There’s also a biology book that offers the ability to navigate 3-D molecules from any angle. Other features include the ability to search text, change the size of the type, purchase individual chapters of books, highlight text for others to see, and take pop quizzes directly within the app…

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Scholars test online alternative to peer review

The internet is calling into question one of academia’s sacred rites, reports the New York Times: the peer- reviewed journal article. For professors, publishing in elite journals is an unavoidable part of university life. The grueling process of subjecting work to the up-or-down judgment of credentialed scholarly peers has been a cornerstone of academic culture since at least the mid-20th century. Now, some humanities scholars have begun to challenge the monopoly that peer review has on admission to career-making journals and, as a consequence, to the charmed circle of tenured academe. They argue that in an era of digital media, there is a better way to assess the quality of work. Instead of relying on a few experts selected by leading publications, they advocate using the internet to expose scholarly thinking to the swift collective judgment of a much broader interested audience. “What we’re experiencing now is the most important transformation in our reading and writing tools since the invention of movable type,” said Katherine Rowe, a Renaissance specialist and media historian at Bryn Mawr College. “The way scholarly exchange is moving is radical, and we need to think about what it means for our fields.” That transformation was behind the recent decision by the prestigious 60-year-old Shakespeare Quarterly to embark on an uncharacteristic experiment in the forthcoming fall issue—one that will make it the first traditional humanities journal to open its reviewing to the World Wide Web…

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Universities use tool to battle student ID theft

Data security crimes jumped by 47 percent from 2007 to 2008.

Data security crimes jumped by 47 percent from 2007 to 2008.

College students have to know which data are most vulnerable before they can protect their Social Security numbers, passwords, and online banking personal identification numbers. The creators of a new software program that fights identity theft say it can do just that—and some of the most respected universities are listening.

Identity Finder, a tool now marketed free of charge to college students, thoroughly scans a computer’s internet browser, files, eMail, attachments, and a range of other programs to find information that would prove most vulnerable to hackers.

The program isolates these bits of information and gives students options for how to secure each item: removing them piece by piece, scrubbing irrelevant data, or encrypting sensitive files for safe storage.

Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, Indiana, and Notre Dame are among the universities that use Identity Finder’s Enterprise version to prevent—or least mitigate—hacker attacks that bring headaches for students and campus IT officials.

Tom Davis, chief security officer at Indiana, said the Identity Finder software “aligns nicely with [the university’s] overarching strategy for protecting sensitive personal and institutional information,” adding that the software has been a “nice complement” to campus officials’ efforts to make students more aware of online habits that expose their personal information to those scouring campus networks for passwords and PINs.

Identity Finder tracks down more than a dozen forms of personal identification such as credit and debit card numbers, personal addresses, passport information, driver’s license numbers, and patient health information. Users can schedule computer searches or search on demand, according to Identity Finder’s web site.

This week, Identity Finder announced that it would make the Home edition of its software available to college students free of charge—reportedly an $80 value.

Still, higher-education technology decision makers said many college students wouldn’t use a program designed to protect against identity theft, despite the prevalence of nightmarish privacy violation stories in media reports.

“Identity protection is something that is strangely foreign to many students today,” said Dennis Marquardt, education technology manager at Abilene Christian University. “Even with significant increases in identity theft, many college students fail to protect their identities and their privacy in the variety of social media and networking applications.”

The high-profile schools have signed on with Identity Finder after a tough summer for technologists in charge of their college’s IT security.

At least three universities—the University of Maine, Penn State University, and Florida International University—reported data breaches in June that compromised Social Security numbers, academic and financial records, and other information for about 40,000 students and faculty across the three institutions.

These universities and others that have scrambled to alert faculty and students of data crimes in recent years are not alone, according to research from the Identity Theft Resource Center, a San Diego-based nonprofit organization.

The number of reported data breaches in schools and colleges increased from 111 in 2007 to 131 in 2008, according to a 2009 report released by the center. Data security crimes jumped by 47 percent overall between 2007 and 2008, according to the research.

Students demonstrate their lack of ID security awareness, Marquardt said, when they don’t log off of password-sensitive accounts on public computers and share ID numbers with friends and family members.


Back-to-school IT projects reshape campus life

The top back-to-school IT projects at 10 colleges and universities show a tidal wave of change in higher education, Reuters reports—and many of the changes could presage broader shifts in enterprise and consumer technology. Not surprisingly, wireless is fast becoming the default network connection for campus users, who typically own between two and four wireless-enabled mobile devices. At the same time, virtualization and growth in cloud-based services are centralizing and offloading IT functions. These changes, coupled with soaring video traffic, are triggering bandwidth upgrades at all levels. As students head back to college, Network World has identified six major areas of technology change: the shift toward 802.11n and all-wireless access; the rising tide of mobile devices; recentralizing IT through virtualization; the growth of cloud computing; fast-growing video use; and big bandwidth upgrades. For instance, video usage is growing, fueled partly by student use of online video streaming services. In addition, there’s expanding use of video in learning, such as “lecture capture” systems that create and store searchable videos of class presentations by teachers, visitors, and students. To accommodate these changes, the University of North Texas upgraded its campus distribution network from 1Gbps to 10Gbps, and a new design will improve redundancy. North Texas University ended the 2010 academic year hitting about 300Mbps to 400Mbps of internet traffic and expects to reach 500Mbps in the new academic year. Campuses are also paying more attention to cellular bandwidth…

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iPad: the new big gadget on campus

This fall, the hit course on some college campuses might very well be iPad 101, reports the Baltimore Sun. At the University of Maryland, administrators plan to hand out Apple iPads to about 60 students, part of a new two-year program called Digital Culture and Creativity that immerses students in new technologies and focuses on the potential of the iPad to shake up the campus experience. The iPad has experienced early success in the consumer market, with more than 3 million sold since April, and it’s also going back to school. On college campuses across the country this fall semester, some students are getting iPads upon admission, while professors and administrators are trying to determine if this latest digital gadget will have a place in the world of academia. The College Park program “is really aimed at the student who is a so-called digital native, who grew up doing interesting things online,” said Matthew Kirschenbaum, associate English professor and director of the digital cultures program. “The iPad isn’t just a tool or instrument for the classroom. It’s also going to be an artifact, an object of study.” The iPad isn’t even a year old but is expected to popularize tablet computers. Its benefits include a vibrant touch screen and media presentation, long battery life, and mobile internet accessibility. But the device, which starts at $499, does not print, which means college students would need to use another computer to produce hard copies of their college papers. Still, technology experts and college officials expect the iPad—and other electronic readers and tablet computers yet to debut—will help reshape higher education…

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Can online flashcards help students ‘Crush That Test’?

CrushThatTest has attracted more than 2,000 members since 2007.

CrushThatTest has attracted more than 2,000 members since 2007.

Sundar Nathan was a college student prepping for an exam, cramming hundreds of pieces of information into his overfilled memory bank when he resorted to flashcards—a strategy he’s evangelized for ever since.

Nathan and a group of University of Texas graduates created the site CrushThatTest in 2007, giving college students more than 1,000 free digital flashcards as a supplement to their course textbooks in nine subjects, ranging from U.S. history to psychology.

Students can access CrushThatTest on their desktops and laptops, or pay $1.99 to use the web-based flashcards on their iPhone. Students can use their iPhones to scroll through chapters and see how many flashcards are available in each chapter.

The web site lets members scroll through flashcards and answer questions about a specific part of a topic, such as chemistry or biology. It then generates a pie chart showing how the student fared on the practice exam. The flashcard testing function has a clock that shows students how long they’ve spent covering a certain part of the curriculum.

“The aspect of time is important in any academic endeavor,” Nathan said. “It helps [students] measure their return on investment, if you look at it in a business sense.”

The site also has flashcards for Spanish and French—with more languages coming this fall—and standardized tests such as the GMAT and GRE.

CrushThatTest has a growing student customer base that now numbers more than 2,000. The site will unwrap new subject areas and more flashcards during the coming academic year.

Breaking classroom lesson into pieces—a strategy known to researchers as “chunking”—helped Nathan sleep better as a college student. When he’d study entire sections of a book and try to review key facts in his head before he fell asleep, he’d come up blank on some questions and worried that his cramming was all for naught.

So he resorted to flashcards, and flipped through the study aids on the bus rides to and from class.

“Somehow my brain seemed to absorb 20 [facts] at a time rather than taking on 100 at a time,” he said. “I think the brain does an interesting job of memorizing so much better that way.”

CrushThatTest’s service, Nathan said, could be a time saver for students who depend on flashcards to solidify complex topics discussed in lectures or discussion sections. It usually took Nathan 40 hours to make a pile of flashcards for an introductory college course—not a time investment many students are willing to make.

“We’ve wanted to bridge the divide between the students who can create that material really fast and those who might struggle with that,” said Nathan, who worked in the software industry before launching CrushThatTest. “And we’ve seen too often that if you test someone on five chapters at a time, it fries their brain.”

Using flashcards to break down massive amounts of information is well founded in research on “chunking” dating back to the 1950s. Princeton psychology professor George Miller found that people memorize facts better in “chunks” of five to seven items at a time.


The web is dead. Who cares?

No doubt many netizens of cyberspace were surprised to hear this week that the World Wide Web is on death’s doorstep while the internet is alive and well and ready to be the platform for an electronic Camelot, PC World reports. That’s because for many folks the web and the net are synonymous. They use the words interchangeably in their daily lives, and they’re likely to continue using them that way even if the prediction of the web’s fade from glory becomes a reality. Let’s face it, all this talk of the web’s rapidly diminishing importance is simply “inside baseball” palaver for many cybernauts who just want to get things done and don’t care about what enables them to do it. To them, it doesn’t matter that what they see in their browsers represents less than a quarter of the traffic on the internet and is shrinking, or that most of the traffic is consumed by peer-to-peer file transfers, eMail (90 percent of which is spam), corporate virtual private network traffic, machine-to-machine APIs, Skype calls, interactive online games, Xbox Live players, iTunes users, voice over IP phone calls, chatting, Netflix streaming movies, and so on…

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E-reading: Revolution in the making or fading fad?

Four years ago Cambridge, Mass.-based E Ink Corporation and Taiwan’s Prime View International Co. hooked up to create an e-paper display that now supplies 90 percent of the fast growing eReader market, the Associated Press reports. But questions still hang over the Taiwanese-American venture, including the readiness of the marketplace to dispense with paper-based reading, in favor of relatively unfamiliar eReaders. “It’s cockamamie to think a product like that is going to revolutionize the way most people read,” analyst Michael Norris of Rockville, Maryland research firm Simba Information Co. said in an eMail. Americans use eBooks at a rate “much, much slower than it looks.” Another challenge for the venture is the ability of key customers like Amazon and Sony to withstand the onslaught of multifunctional computing devices which have eReader capability, particularly Apple’s iPad, whose five-month sales history has left their one-dimensional models struggling to keep up…

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