College for America spins off its custom-made learning management system

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Southern New Hampshire U.'s College for America spins off the custom-made learning management system it built around competency-based education.

Lynn U., to free itself from its learning management system, creates its own software

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Lynn U., halfway through dropping its learning management system for iTunes U, develops its own software where Apple's falls short.

Educause, Gates Foundation to examine history and future of the LMS

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Educause launches a Gates Foundation-backed initiative to identify how the learning management system market needs to evolve.

Essay in support of the TEACH Act

Recently there has been much debate about the proposed TEACH Act.  As the landscape in higher education has evolved, and most educational opportunities now require use of  electronic and information technology, institutions have been left without an effective structure for taking access for all into account. Currently, institutions have only lawsuits and enforcement actions to guide them; the point of the TEACH Act is to pave the way for consistent national guidance. The Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) supports the proposed legislation and seeks to clarify a few points.

It is important to remember that the TEACH Act comes directly from a recommendation made in the Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) Commission Report, and that the AIM Commission was authorized within the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008 and had representation of AHEAD as well as additional representation from both two-year and four-year colleges, advocacy groups, service providers, and publishers.

In addition, it is helpful to take a close look at the TEACH Act language itself, and compare it to the arguments being raised in op-eds such as the recent “Good Intentions, Bad Legislation,” published by Inside Higher Ed. While there are several arguments that were raised within the opinion piece that warrant a closer look, one particular statement claimed: “Rather than simply providing helpful, voluntary guidelines, the TEACH Act would effectively require colleges to only use technologies that meet guidelines created by a federal agency, or risk being sued.”

In reality, voluntary guidelines are precisely what the legislation would authorize the Access Board (the federal agency referenced in the op-ed) to establish. While it is conceivable that a federal agency could choose to adopt those guidelines at some point in the future, this legislation itself is simply outlining a means for guidelines to be established. Guidelines would not require institutions to adopt or not adopt any given technology; they would, however, serve as navigational structures that institutions could use to chart their course.

The bigger point, though, is that colleges and universities are already required to honor the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended in 2008 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), as well as any relevant state or local statutes. This responsibility is already established, but as court case after compliance review after investigation has proved, institutions are struggling to meet the existing obligations. This legislation does not add new responsibilities or any additional burden, undue or otherwise, to educational institutions, but could, by establishing a common baseline for due diligence, help alleviate some of the existing burden.

In addition, having recognized guidelines allows the commercial publishers, software developers, and others who produce for the educational market to create products that will assist their customers in meeting their current obligations under the law. The TEACH Act would not change the existing requirements surrounding the adoption of technology, but it would provide guidance for both the producers and consumers of educational products.

Under both the ADA and Section 504, colleges and universities are required to provide equally effective access to students with disabilities. Currently, campuses struggle to meet this obligation when it comes to technology.  We know that the individual accommodation process is not an effective way to ensure equal access in regard to information- and communication technology-related barriers. This legislation expressly allows the individual accommodation process to be utilized where appropriate, and would offer institutions a more effective framework within which to operate to better ensure efficient, proactive accessibility rather than second-class service to some of their students. 

Currently, most institutions can only “accommodate” inaccessible technology with patches, workarounds, and other local ad hoc approaches that not only result in unequal and less effective access, but also are unsustainable.

The point of the TEACH Act, we believe, is to end after-the-fact decision-making processes in how to accommodate technology. The point is not to force certain choices upon the institutions but to ensure that the needs of individuals with disabilities are seriously considered and taken into account at the right point in the acquisition process.

The American people long ago concluded that “separate but equal” was inappropriate treatment of a portion of the population in our country; why do we think it is acceptable now?  We support consistency in practices with technology across all college and university campuses to ensure all students with disabilities are afforded the same opportunities as other students.  Continuing to operate without national guidelines would not ensure equal access.

Bea Awoniyi is president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability and assistant vice president for student affairs at Santa Fe College. Stephan J. Smith is executive director of AHEAD.                    

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The media should cast a more skeptical eye on higher ed reforms (essay)

It’s September and therefore time once again to clear this year’s collection of task force, blue ribbon panel, and conference reports to await the new harvest. Sad. Every one of these efforts was once graced by a newspaper article, often with breathless headline, reporting on another well-intentioned group’s solution to one or another of higher education’s problems.

By now we know that much of this work will have little positive impact on higher education, and realize that some of it might have been harmful. The question in either case is, where was the press?

Where were the challenges, however delicately phrased, asking about evidence, methodology, experimentation or concrete results? Why were press releases taken at face value, and why was there no follow-up to explore whether the various studies had any relevance or import in the real world?

The journalists I know are certainly equal to the task: bright, invested, interesting. But along with the excellent writing, where is the healthy skepticism and the questioning attitude of the scholar and the journalist?

This absence of a critical attitude has consequences. A myth, given voice, can cause untold harm. In one extreme example, the canard that accreditors trooped through schools “counting books” enabled a mindless focus on irrelevant measured learning outcomes, bright lines, metrics, rubrics and the like. This helped erode one of the most effective characteristics of accreditation and gave rise to a host of alternatives, once again unexamined, unreviewed, and unchallenged -- but with enough press space to enable them to take root.

Many of us do apply a healthy dose of constructive skepticism to the new, the untested, and the unverified. But it’s only reporters and journalists who have the ability to voice such concerns in the press.

No doubt it’s more pleasant to write about promising new developments than to express concern and caution. But don’t we have a right to expect this as well? Surely de Tocqueville’s press, whose "eye is always open" and which "forces public men to appear before the tribunal of public opinion" has bequeathed a sense of responsibility to probe and to scrutinize proposals and plans as well as people.

Consider, for example, the attitude of the press to MOOCs. First came the thrilling stories of millions of people studying quantum electrodynamics, as well as the heartwarming tale of the little girl high in the Alps learning Esperanto from a MOOC while guarding the family’s sheep. Or something.

The MOOC ardor has cooled, but it’s not because of a mature, responsible examination by the press.

The mob calling for disruption hasn’t dispersed, only the watchword is now "innovation." Any proposal that claims to teach students more effectively, at a lower cost and a quicker pace, is granted a place in the sun, while faculty and institutions are labeled as obstructionists trying to save their jobs.

That responsible voices don’t get heard often enough might be partially our fault. Even though every journalist went to college, this personal experience was necessarily limited. Higher education is maddeningly diverse, and writers should be invited to observe or participate in a variety of classes, at different levels and in all kinds of schools.

Accrediting agencies should invite more reporters to join site visits. Reality is a powerful teacher and bright journalists would make excellent students.

Reporters who understand higher education would also be more effective in examining proposed legislation. We need a questioning eye placed on unworkable or unrealistic initiatives to ensure that higher education not be harmed – as has been the case so often in the past.

Senator Tom Harkin’s recent Higher Education Act bill has language that would make accreditation totally ineffective. Hopefully it will be removed in further iterations of the legislation.

But wouldn’t we be better off if searching questions came from an independent, informed, and insistent press?


Bernard Fryshman is a professor of physics and former accreditor.

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Wesleyan U. fires university librarian after disagreement with provost

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After long-running disagreements about how to run its library, Wesleyan U. fires its university librarian.

University Email Accounts for Sale in China

An email address from a prestigious university and access to its library and other services can now be yours for the low, low price of 16 cents!

But wait -- there’s more!

The IT security company Palo Alto Networks last week found email accounts from 42 universities worldwide -- 19 of them in the U.S. -- for sale on Taobao, China’s version of eBay. The site is owned by the massive Alibaba Group, which specializes in ecommerce. Accounts from universities in Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are also listed for sale.

Some accounts can be purchased for as little as 1 Chinese yuan, or about 16 cents, but prices for the most expensive accounts reached 2,400 Chinese yuan -- about $390, based on Monday’s exchange rates. The accounts all come with valid passwords, and the listings “guaranteed that all email accounts were valid, accessible, and active.”

Universities in the U.S. are routinely bombarded with malicious attacks originating in countries such as China. Armed with a university email address, hackers may gain a trusted platform from which to launch those attacks. For example, an administrator or faculty member may not think twice about whether an email is actually a phishing attack meant to steal their credentials when it comes from a valid university account.

In fact, Palo Alto Networks found many buyers may be using the email accounts to score discounts around the Internet. Several listings walked potential buyers through the process of using their newly acquired “.edu” accounts to secure cheap software deals or memberships with online retailers. Others may use the accounts to access academic databases, journals and other resources universities subscribe to.

If the accounts are only being used for online discounts, universities don’t have any way to track it, a spokesman for Purdue University said. The institution is one of the 19 listed in the analysis. But if the buyers attempt to access Purdue’s network, he said, “then yes, they do have ways to detect that.”

The spokesman declined to go into detail to avoid compromising Purdue’s network security, as is usually the case when universities discuss the topic.

Palo Alto Networks were able to get in touch with several sellers, one of whom explained how the accounts ended up on Taobao to begin with.

“A well-stocked seller told us that every account he sold belonged to an active student at the respective university,” analysts Claud Xiao and Rob Downs wrote. “He claimed that once the account was sold, only the one buyer and the legitimate user would have access.”

Those accounts were also the least expensive. For a slightly higher price, buyers could request customized addresses. To verify the listings weren’t scams, the analysts bought an account and received a working email address four hours later.

The analysts have reported the accounts to Taobao, which is reportedly working on addressing the issue.

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Coursera Instructor Finds Huge Security Problems

Jonathan Mayer, a lawyer and computer scientist at Stanford University, was getting ready to teach his first Coursera course last week when he discovered large security problems on the provider of massive open online courses. As he described on his blog, Mayer found that, among other things, any instructor could "dump the entire user database, including over 9 million names and email addresses" and that "if you are logged into your Coursera account, any website that you visit can list your course enrollments." Coursera has acknowledged the problems and said that it has fixed them. Mayer's blog says that the MOOC provider has made some but not all of the fixes.

Online education platform EdCast puts universities in charge of their content

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EdCast, a new online education platform provider, wants to use open-source software to help institutions teach courses to on-campus and online students all at once.

Audit Criticizes UConn for Software Spending

A state audit has criticized the University of Connecticut for spending $902,000 on financial management software from Kuali that the institution didn't even use. Between 2009 and 2012, the university paid service provider SciQuest three annual licensing fees, even though it would take until the summer of 2012 before the system was up and running. The audit also criticized the university for entering into a $10.1 million contract with SciQuest without first completing a formal selection process. The news was first reported by The Hartfort Courant.

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