Weekly Ed-Tech News Roundup: Potatoes, Chromebooks, Jetpacks, & More

Politics and Policies

This week marks the 32nd anniversary of the signing of the Department of Education Organization Act, the law signed by President Jimmy Carter that created the Department of Education. GOOD's Liz Dwyer has a great post asking a question that's on a lot of people's minds: do we still need a Department of Education?

The Senate Education Committee began work this week sifting through the 800-some-odd-page reauthorization for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The last revision to the law gave us No Child Left Behind. Senators on the Education Committee and their staff are now tasked with marking up the legislation with various changes and amendments. Oh, what will they give us this time?!

Meanwhile, the Senate did vote on Tuesday to block an Obama administration proposal that would have limited the amount of potatoes served in school lunches. Yes, I know it's not technology news, but somehow it's indicative enough of other trends that I'm including it here.

Launches

BioCurious, a hackerspace for biotech, officially opened its doors this week with a new location in Sunnyvale, California. Members will have access to lab and office space, as well as a slew of lab equipment. No need to be a "professional scientist" in order to join.

Microsoft announced that it's working with Sesame Street and other children's television programs to build interactive programming that utilizes the Kinect and XBox360. The future of television? Another big step for gesture-based learning?

A new online degree program will launch in January at the Sage Colleges in Albany, New York. What makes the Achieve Degree unique is that it's the first-of-its-kind program aimed at helping those with developmental disabilities obtain their bachelor's degrees. The degree requires the traditional 120 credit hours, but features small classes, extra supports, accommodation for different learning styles, and a modified course schedule to meet the students' needs.

Purdue University launched a new app for its students this week. Jetpack will allow them to download their course materials -- handouts, readings, videos, links, audio -- directly to their phones. Once downloaded, students will be able to access the "packs," even when they're offline. There's an iOS app available via iTunes (link), and the school says it has plans to open up the platform to others to create their own packs beginning next summer.

The presentation software SlideRocket announced SlideRocket EDU this week, making its tools available to students and teachers via the Google Apps Marketplace.

The online study tool StudyBlue has launched a new Facebook app called "Friends with Brainefits." The app lets student pick a particular topic -- from the ACT to AP tests -- and posts key terms to the student's Facebook wall for friends to comment on. The idea is these comments will help the student remember what the term means. (Hopefully, that's what students remember and not the rude or snarky comments that friends may leave as pseudo-definitions!)

Updates and Upgrades

Google announced a change to the way it will sell its new Chromebooks. Rather than solely offering these Chrome-OS netbooks via subscription, schools will now be able to buy them up front, a move that Google says will work better with schools' annual budget cycles. The new costs: $449 for the WiFi version and $519 for the 3G version. Then, during years 2 and 3 of the contract, schools will pay $5 per month per Chromebook for support.

Learning management system giant Blackboard announced this week that it plans to add a "share" button to its site, so that professors will be able to make their course materials available beyond the walled garden of the LMS. The company is also lifting some of its "per-seat" licensing fees so that those not enrolled in classes aren't charged for accessing the material. I've already reached the limit on the number of times I can use an image of Admiral Akhbar in an LMS-related story in one month, but you can read more of my thoughts about the announcement here.

Khan Academy announced this week that it has added the first new faculty members beyond just Sal Khan himself. In order to start expanding Khan Academy's offerings into the humanities, the organization will be working with Smarthistory, whose openly-licensed, multimedia art history "textbook" was a recent successful Kickstarter project. Khan told the attendees at Web 2.0 this week that the number of unique visitors to the webiste is up over 300% from last year, up to about 3.5 million per month.

Google unveiled a much-needed facelift for Google Presentation, its would-be PowerPoint substitute. It comes a lot closer to being just that now, with the addition of animations and transitions, as well as better collaborative features.

Professional social networking site LinkedIn added a new feature this week, LinkedIn Classmates. The tool isn't just meant to help connect you with those who graduated from your alma mater, but also tries to offer insights about the career trajectories and trends among graduates.

Classes, Conferences, and Competitions

EDUCAUSE, the non-profit organization that focuses on higher education and IT, held its annual conference in Philadelphia this week.

Startup Weekend EDU had its first official event as part of the newly launched education vertical. Held in San Francisco, the winner of the 54-hour-long, "build an ed-tech startup in a weekend" event was Alumn.us, an alumni network for public high schools and community colleges. Startup Weekend EDU is off to Washington DC next, adamant about its mission to help launch thousands of education startups.

Florida Virtual School, an online middle and high school, has added several new courses to its offerings. These include Guitar 1, AP Art History, AP Human Geography, French 1, Sociology, Journalism and Advanced Algebra. Free to Florida public school students, the school also has a for-profit arm, selling these online classes to students outside the state.

Google is holding its second annual Google Code-in competition. Like last year's contest, Google Code-in offers 13 to 17 year olds the chance to work on open source software projects. The contest starts November 21, and you can find out more details about participating here.

The Panel Picker is available for this year's SXSWedu conference. It's your chance to vote on the panels you'd like to see at the event. SXSWedu is also adding a new program this year, LAUNCHedu, where ed-tech startups will have a chance to pitch in front of educators (and a panel of judges).

Microsoft is kicking off its tenth annual Imagine Cup competition this year. The Imagine Cup is a competition that asks college students to work on technology solutions to some of the world's most pressing problems (poverty, disease, environmental destruction, and so on). Registration for the contest opened this week, as did the application process for its new Imagine Cup Grant Program.

Disasters

Sesame Street had its YouTube channel hacked this week. And badly. All the videos were pulled from the channel and replaced with pornography. No one has claimed responsibility for the hack, not surprisingly, because it's hardly a brag-worthy deed.

Donations

The estate of Roald Dahl has donated four of Dahl's most beloved books -- Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- to Worldreader, which means they'll be available as part of the e-reader literacy program in sub-Saharan Africa. The non-profit organization has a collection of more than 56,000 books which it's delivered on Kindles, to some 600 students in Ghana and Kenya.

Research and Data

The American Academy of Pediatrics has long suggested that parents limit the amount of television their young children watch. And this week, the AAP released a new report, this time with more data, to back up those recommendations. Ars Technica has a good write-up of the research.

A newly released report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce looks at the future of STEM-related jobs. Among the findings, 65% of those with Bachelors Degrees in STEM areas earn more than those with degrees in non-STEM areas (and oftentimes more than those with PhDs in non-STEM areas. It also found that STEM jobs will be 5% of all jobs by 2018, although demand for the skills is growing rapidly outside those occupations seen as traditionally STEM-related. (See PDF for more details.)

Recently, I wrote a story for MindShift, asking whether or not cursive should remain a part of the curriculum. Those looking for a good reason why it should can take solace in the research of Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis van Ahn. Van Ahn is the inventor of the term CAPTCHA, the process by which online forms attempt to verify that the person filling them out is human, not machine. Algorithms are actually getting better at cracking CAPTCHAs. But van Ahn's latest research, reports The Economist, suggests that the ability to read cursive writing and decipher frilly lettering, remains beyond the reach of computers. So apparently reading and writing cursive is something that still distinguishes human from machine.

Speaking at the Web 2.0 summit this week, Facebook CTO Bret Taylor revealed that, contrary to what many people say, most people have actually changed their privacy settings on the site. He specifically noted that younger, more active users were the most savvy about limiting who could view their profiles and posts.

The latestFreakonomics podcast takes a look at the recent spate of teacher-cheating scandals. Definitely worth a listen.

Financials

Test prep and social learning platform Grockit announced that it has raised $7 million in its latest round of funding. The company also said that it's struck a deal with Georgetown University to make its services available to students and alumni. And Grockit also launched Grockit Answers, an incredibly cool new tool that lets you turn YouTube and Vimeo videos into real-time (or at least, time-coded with the video) Q&A discussions.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that an investment firm run by Jonathan Grayer, the former CEO of Kaplan, has acquired Learning House, a company that helps colleges develop online degree programs.

Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC has acquired the children's app making company Inquisitive Minds, reports The Next Web, for $13 million. Inquisitive Minds is responsible for Zoodles, a series of products and services to keep kids safe online.

The Apollo Group, the parent organization of the University of Phoenix, released its quarterly earnings results this week. Revenue for the company's fourth quarter totalled $1122 million, a 10.9% decreases from the fourth quarter of 2010. That's due in part to a decrease in enrollment at the University of Phoenix, which is down almost 20% compared to the same time last year.

Image credits: Flickr user Robin


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