Weekly Ed-Tech News Roundup: The Digital Textbook Scramble

Politics and Policies

It was an interesting week for the Internet, with online protests held on January 18 to challenge and draw awareness to SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act), two proposed pieces of legislation that would severely impact both the infrastructure of the Internet and our constitutional rights of due process. A number of major websites "went dark" for the day, including the English-language version of Wikipedia. (You can read my reaction to the Internet's reaction to students' reactions here). By the end of the week, the massive opposition (Google says that some 7 million people signed its petition opposing the laws and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales said that website received some 162 million hits). Following the protests, it was clear that The People had spoken, and many of the politicians who'd initially supported the law changed their minds. By the end of the week, Senator Harry Reid announced that PIPA would be shelved. The Internet won the battle… but the war no doubt will go on.

The Supreme Court declined to hear a lower court ruling this week that would have helped clarify students First Amendment rights as they pertain to off-campus, online speech. "The justices have not squarely addressed the student-speech issue as it applies to the digital world — one filled with online social-networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and others," writes Wired's David Kravets. "The issue before the justices tests whether public schools may discipline students who, while off campus, use social-networking sites to mock school officials." In 1969, the Supreme Court said that students had the right to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, stating that schools had no right to interfere with students' free speech unless it would “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”

In a 6-2 decision this week, the Supreme Court ruled that material can be removed from the public domain with copyright re-applied. The ruling stemmed from a suit brought by a composer who argued that it was a First Amendment violation to have retroactive copyright placed on Peter and the Wolf, following Congress's decision to retroactively extend copyright.

Lawmakers in Idaho will review a controversial plan to require all high school students in the state to take at least 2 credits online in order to graduate. According to the AP, the Senate Education Committee listened to testimony about the law (which was one of a number of "reforms" pushed by Governor Tom Luna), which was mostly opposed to the online requirement.

The National Center for Science Education announced that it would begin to focus its efforts on making sure climate change is taught in schools, reports Ars Technica. The organization has long advocated for the inclusion of evolution in science curriculum. But times -- along with the climate -- are changing and the NCSE wants to make sure that the controversial topic is addressed.

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Launches

Wolfram Alpha, the "computational knowledge engine," has launched an Education Portal. Currently free and in beta, the portal contains an online textbook created in partnership with the CK-12 Foundation. It also contains other supplemental materials, including Wolfram Demonstrations, widgets and videos. At launch, the portal focuses on Algebra and Calculus, but the company says it will expand to other topics.

GeekDad has a first look at Lego's new social network, ReBrick, a place for builders to share their creations with one another. "The main purpose of ReBrick — which is not about products made by the Lego Group, according to Online Community Lead Peter Espersen — is to be a hub for all Lego-based creations and projects made by the Lego fan community."

Updates and Upgrades

Facebook unveiled some changes to its Open Graph this week, making it possible for third-party app developers to push information into users' Timeline. Among the companies first to take advantage of the new functionality is the test prep startup Grockit. Students using Grockit can now opt to have their study progress appear there.

The digital textbook app-maker Kno added two new features this week -- Kno Me and Kno Flashcards. The former gives students insights into their study habits with a data dashboard containing the time they spend on a book, their quiz results and so on. Kno Flashcards, as the name suggests, allows students to create flashcards with key terms and notes they've taken from their textbooks.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 5 colleges will experiment with bulk-buying of e-textbooks in an effort to help lower the costs for students. Cornell University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Minnesota, the University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin are participating, but only one textbook publisher is involved: McGraw-Hill. At this stage, the universities are picking up the tab for the e-books, which will only be for certain courses; but if the bulk-buying is able to provide a solid discount, the program may continue -- this time with students footing the bill.

Textbook rental giant Chegg unveiled a new e-textbook reader this week. The browser-based (HTML5) app will allow students to acquire digital textbooks through Chegg. I think I get partial credit for my 2012 predictions for this one.

Personal safety app maker Guardly (iTunes link) announced that it was working with 67 university campuses to help extend their safety programs and incorporate them with the Guardly service. The app lets you turn your smartphone into an "emergency call button," with the option to trigger a loud siren, contact police (and/or in this case campus security), or friends.

Retroactivity

Further restricting libraries' access to digital materials, Penguin has now changed its policies for lending audiobooks. No longer will the publishing company (owned by Pearson) allow libraries to lend audiobook titles. The Digital Shift has the notice sent by Overdrive, a major e-book distributor to libraries. In November, the company announced that new e-book titles from Penguin would also be restricted.

And in other bad library news this week came this tweet: "All of Harvard Library staff have just effectively been fired." Not quite, the university responded, noting that it's just "reorganizing." “It is inaccurate to say that all library staff will need to reapply for their positions,” Kira Poplowski, the library’s director of communications told The Chronicle. But a lot of questions remain about exactly what's going to happen, and as Chris Bourg notes, plenty of folks are worried that "as Harvard goes, so go other academic libraries – in other words, if massive layoffs can happen at Harvard (with its huge endowments), then no academic library is safe."

Sorry fanboys, but the Apple news this week goes under this "troubling news" category too. Here are my thoughts -- "Apple and the Digital Textbook Counter Revolution". My headline says it all, I think. Well, "all" except for these other pieces I wrote about the company's education announcement -- here, here, here, and here. (Good grief.)

Research and Data

Lock Haven University professor Rey Junco continues to publish his research on how college students utilize social media. This week, he posted on his blog some early insights into a study on students' preferred method of incorporating social technologies into the classroom. Not surprisingly, they like Facebook best -- food for thought, I'd say, for both educators and ed-tech entrepreneurs when it comes to design and implementation.

Overdrive released its year-end statistics on e-book lending at public libraries, noting that there were 1.6 billion book and title catalog pages viewed, up 130% from 2010. Mobile usage was up as well and now comprises 22% of checkouts.

Latitude Research has published its latest study about what kids want from robots in their daily life. (PDF) Among the findings: nearly 2/3 of the kids who participated in the study said that robots would be their friends, with 75% saying that robots would help them learn. Just 25% said they wanted robots who'd help them with chores and other "low level" responsibilities.

Funding

PaidContent reports on Pearson's latest financial statements, noting that the company made $3 billion from the sale of digital content last year -- almost a third of its revenue. So much for the move to digital destroying traditional publishing companies, eh?

The German media conglomerate Bertelsmann, along with the University of Texas Investment Management Company and others announced the University Ventures Fund, a $100 million investment fund to support "innovation from within the academy." See Inside Higher Ed for more details.

Contests and Awards

O'Reilly's MAKE division announced that it had received an award from DARPA in support of its Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (MENTOR) program. MAKE, along with OtherLab, will help develop a new Makerspace program to, in the words of Dale Dougherty, "integrate online tools for design and collaboration with low-cost options for physical workspaces where students may access educational support to gain practical hands-on experience with new technologies and innovative processes to design and build projects. The program has a goal of reaching 1000 high schools over four years, starting with a pilot program of 10 high schools in California during the 2012-2013 school year."

It's time again for the Doodle 4 Google competition. This is the fifth year that Google has given K-12 students a chance to design their own Google logo for the site's homepage. The winning doodler, says Google "will also take home a $30,000 college scholarship and a $50,000 technology grant for his or her school." This year, there will also be a winner chosen from every state.

YouTube announced the finalists of its Space Lab competition, a contest that challenged students to design experiments for the International Space Station. Voting runs through January 24.

As part of its Summer Jobs + program, the White House announced this week a number of technology-focused initiatives, including a partnership with Codecademy to help teach young kids programming skills.

Photo credits:  Flickr user Helen Cook



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