Testing Software, Online Education, and Modifying Crops

Going the Distance

Children try out a laptop last year at an educational exhibition in ShanghaiHow do you take higher education to the masses when your country covers a huge expanse of the Earth and its population numbers a billion?

The Chinese government has decided that the Internet is part of the solution. It wants to have five million students attending as many as 100 online colleges within four years, says the China Daily. China's overarching goal is to get 15 percent of eligible citizens enrolled in some form of higher education, up from the 11 percent now taking classes. Currently, about 240,000 students are in degree programs at 38 online institutions. China is certainly adopting its distance-education program swiftly. It opened its first online school in 1997. That collaboration, between Hunan University and Hunan Telecom, has attracted about 3,500 students. The largest online college, offered by the People's University of China, has 6,000 students.

Michael B. Yahuda, a Chinese expert at London's School of Economics, says what the government is doing makes sense. Online universities offer China a means to reach a large and far-flung group of potential students, he says. “They have great potential.”

There are problems, however. Lack of bandwidth and a cable infrastructure means that few Chinese students can receive the content they'll need at home. So most schools use a model based on Qinghua University, which beams content via a satellite to a network of teaching centers. Qinghua began its online program three years ago and expects to have 5,000 students this year. An online degree from Qinghua requires completion of 15 courses taken over two to four years. Cost of a degree at People's University's is between $1,000 and $2,000. At Qinghua, tuition is $480 to $600 a year. To Americans, China's online degrees must seem like bargains.


Medic Alert

SYDNEY, Australia —”Hey, wake up! You have a problem!” It's not quite that blunt, but diabetics may find themselves grateful for a new Australian engineering invention that will warn sleeping sufferers that they're in trouble.

The inventors say that the noninvasive device could also render obsolete the diabetics' daily chore of monitoring blood sugar levels by sampling blood or body fluids.

Hung Nguyen, a professor on Sydney's University of Technology engineering faculty, developed the gadget—dubbed Hypomon—to give diabetics an easy way to check on sugar levels as they sleep.

Hypoglycemia, which is dangerously low blood sugar levels, can cause coma and death if untreated. It is a common complication for patients with a certain type of diabetes. Episodes commonly occur while patients are asleep—delaying treatment with potentially fatal consequences.

Nguyen's device employs electrodes attached to patients' skin, which measure skin moisture and heart activity. When there is a significant change, an alarm alerts the patient, parent, or caregiver in the form of a ring, buzz, or vibration.

“There's currently no comparably noninvasive monitor in the marketplace that identifies hypoglycemic conditions in diabetic patients using important physiological parameters such as skin moisture, heart signals, and brain waves,” Nguyen says.

Small-scale clinical trials were completed at Sydney's Prince of Wales Hospital, a major teaching facility. Supervised by Stephen Colagiuri, director of the hospital's diabetes unit, these tests demonstrated that the device works well. The University of Technology is in discussion with several possible commercial developers of the Hypomon. The device could be on the market in around three years.

Though created to help diabetics while they sleep, Nguyen believes some patients will opt also to monitor blood glucose levels using his invention while awake by carrying the microprocessor—linked to electrodes on their skin—discreetly in a pocket.

The device can also be adapted to monitor infants susceptible to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and patients with cardiac problems.


Attack on “Killer” Soybeans

French rural leader Jose Bove pulls out a soy plant during a protest against genetically modified cropsLast summer, the European Commission recommended proposals to reassure consumers on the other side of the Atlantic that their foods were “safe” from genetically modified (GM) crops. Currently, American exporters of soybeans and corn face hurdles in exporting those commodities in bulk to Europe because most GM varieties are banned there, while American soy and corn crops are predominately GM. Indeed, no GM crops have been grown commercially within the European Union (E.U.) since 1998; a region-wide ban is in place until the proposed strict labeling guidelines and a system to trace GM ingredients through the food chain are in place. There is no evidence that GM foods are dangerous to humans, but in the wake of several major food safety crises in Europe in recent years, many consumers there now believe that they pose a health risk.

But scientists are saying that Europe's attitude toward bioengineered foods is unsustainable. That's because GM crops have become so widespread—100 million acres were planted across the globe last year.

So it's becoming impossible for people to completely avoid them. Consider that 90 percent of world soy and corn exports come from the U.S., Argentina, and Brazil. GM crops are the mainstays within the US and Argentina, while Brazil is close to approving them. “Europeans will not be able to avoid them (GM soy and corn) for long, at least not at a realistic price,” says Jim Dunwell, a plant scientist at Reading University in Britain.

Dunwell says it will soon be “practically impossible to ensure that every food product is 100 percent free” of GM materials. Even organic foods won't be able to guarantee absolute purity. At best, he says, Europe may have to accept that so-called GM-free foods contain up to 1 percent of genetically modified crops. Historically, he adds, food regulators have allowed a certain amount of impurities into foods, because it's not realistic to do otherwise—particularly in processed foods. Pork sausages labeled 100 percent pork will probably contain trace amounts of beef or lamb. But, Dunwell admits, many consumers don't understand this concept, and want zero tolerance when it comes to GM crops.

Coincidentally, European regulators acted to tighten GM labeling standards just weeks after a U.N. report criticized Western governments and consumers for failing to recognize the value of GM foods and the potential they have to ease Third World food shortages. “The current debate . . . over genetically modified crops mostly ignores the concerns and needs of the developing world,” it says, and “tends to be driven by the views of Western consumers who do not face food shortages or nutritional deficiencies . . .”


Putting Software to the Test

Think of how often your PC crashes. Now think how much we already rely on embedded software to control critical components within such things as medical devices, airplanes, cars, and high-tech weaponry. If your PC only crashes once or twice a year, you probably consider yourself lucky. But if some of these other software were to fail that regularly, well, the problem might be more than just an irritation. Now two researchers from Kansas State University's College of Engineering are leading a five-year, $3.2 million project to ensure that embedded software is properly tested, so that once it's in use, there is a high degree of confidence that it will work.

It does sound scary that rigorous tests of critical-use software are only now being developed. That's because, “in general, it's easier to build complex systems than to test them . . . the bulk of software research and industry is focused on building systems that have new capabilities and are faster,” explains Matthew Dwyer, who received the grant along with John Hatcliff, his colleague in the computing and information sciences department. As software becomes even more embedded in everyday products, the market's tolerance for failure will decrease, he adds. “But that might require several catastrophic accidents in which software is clearly to blame. We'd prefer not to wait for that.” Dwyer hastens to add, however, that the risk of deaths occurring because of software failure is probably no greater than people dying from human error, which is marginally comforting.

There are good methods already in use to determine software reliability, but they are “incredibly expensive,” he explains, and are mainly used for very critical operations. AT&T, for instance, has 2,000 people dedicated to developing and testing software to keep its telephone networks running smoothly. As embedded software becomes a regular part of our lives, Dwyer says, easier, less costly methods will be needed to keep failure rates low. Typically, engineers use mathematical models to determine the correctness of a system, but most models used for testing software are superficial, Dwyer says. His team's trying to devise a testing model that's closer to traditional engineering models.

Funding for the research comes from the Defense Department, and Dwyer and Hatcliff are working in tandem with colleagues at the University of Massachusetts. Two other schools, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pennsylvania, are considering other possible software tests. Next time your laptop crashes, think about how reliant upon software your car has become. Then wish Dwyer et. al. very good luck, indeed.


Salaries Lag at Public Institutions

When the American Association of University Professors published its annual report on faculty salaries earlier this year, it was sad reading for full professors who teach at public universities. And since 80 percent of Americans are educated at publicly financed schools, that's a very large group of academics who may have been bemoaning their bank balances. On average, the gap between professors at public and private schools is nearly $17,100--that's about $342,000 over a 20-year teaching career. But the range of salaries was from $113,000 to $57,000--a gap of $56,000--and disparities of $25,000 to $30,000 are not uncommon.

The widening ravine between well-endowed private universities and public ones has some experts worried. "It is a real crisis," says F. King Alexander, a professor of educational organization at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign. Ronald Ehrenberg, an economist at Cornell University, agrees: "The real issue is whether publics will be able to retain high-quality faculty, or if they will be bid away to higher paying privates." And even within public schools, a two-tier system is evolving, Alexander says, as some institutions give priority to two or three departments in an effort to keep up with their private rivals at some levels.

The gap dates to the late 70s, and Ehrenberg says the main problem is that states treat spending for higher education as "discretionary," while funding for
elementary and secondary education is usually sacrosanct. "So when states run into financial problems, as they did during the late 1980s and early 1990s, funding for public higher education suffers," he says.

To be sure, money is not the sole criterion academics use to decide where to work. Quality of life can be a big factor: where a school is located, ties to family and friends. And don't forget cost of living. A fat salary in an expensive city may offer less spending power than a modest salary in a smaller town. But in the end, Alexander argues, money counts for a lot. "Salary will matter more and more as the disparity widens," he says.


Schoolhouse of a Different Sort

Many of the largest textbook publishers are rapidly venturing into cyberspace and launching online learning networks. These networks offer content (including e-textbooks), assessment and management tools, and other resources. One observer has likened them to huge community schoolhouses that offer something for teachers, students, and parents. Paul LeBlanc, an expert on Internet education at Marlboro College in Vermont and a former executive at publisher Houghton Mifflin, says "publishers really have no choice" but to venture into virtual education. That's because today's teachers and students have come to rely on PCs nearly as much as books.

That said, how to make money from learning networks is something that no one has yet figured out. Scholastic was the first to launch a network back in 1996, using a fee-based model. It switched to a free site three years later, and now hopes to find revenues from e-commerce.

McGraw-Hill entered the fray last January with its McGraw-Hill Learning Network. It's based on the presumption that it will extract revenues from sales of interactive textbooks, and doesn't figure to make money on the teaching tools it offers, which include grade-trackers and online calendars. Pearson, the London-based industry leader, has a year-old free site that has sections for K-12, colleges, lifelong learning and professional development. It mainly offers Web-based tools, including grade books, quizzes, and games. As of last June, the Pearson site's losses totaled $122 million on revenues of $4.4 million. It expects to earn money from the sale of "digital goods"--books, videos, toys, and software--but sees revenues primarily coming from advertising and sponsorships. Meanwhile, PLATO's Web Learning Network has set itself up as an application service provider to deliver curriculum, assessment, and management tools to subscriber schools.

LeBlanc says McGraw-Hill's plan to focus on e-books seems sound. He's dubious of sites that rely on advertising, since ad revenues haven't been strong enough to bolster commercial sites. But he also doubts if interactive books will create new markets for publishers. He sees them primarily as a means to retain market share. "It's really a rear-guard action," LeBlanc says. Interactive textbooks do have their advantages, including 3-D graphics and streaming video. "Those are powerful tools," LeBlanc admits. Yet "textbooks are alive and well" and will remain so for years to come, he adds. Reading from a screen is less pleasant than reading from a printed page, and books are hard to beat for portability and ease of use. So don't toss away your highlighter pens just yet.


Charging for Bytes

Illustration by Joyce HesselberthWhen college students live on campus, they pay for dorm rooms. If they have telephone service, they pay for that. If they're on a meal plan, they're likewise billed. And required textbooks don't come free, either. But over the last few years, as academic use of the Internet has become de rigueur, most students have gotten free access via super fast campus networks. The upshot is that many students put these systems to use for nonacademic activities--primarily downloading music from file-sharing sites, like Napster. That's put a drain on some schools' networks, forcing many to add more capacity. Now some schools are starting to rethink their free-access policies, and some have started to charge students for the service. The University of Pennsylvania now charges students about $180 a year, a fee that's bundled into housing charges, along with phone and cable television costs. Moreover, it has disconnected the free Internet service it provided to off-campus students and faculty, which was costing it $1 million a year.

A spot check by Prism of three other universities found that two were still offering free connections and had no plans to change that policy. A third, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has always charged for its campus Internet service.

At the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, not only is access free but plans are afoot to make it even more available. Students will soon be able to dial up from a newly built dorm, as well as from the student union building and the fitness center. Spokesperson Patricia Azriel says the school has not had any problems with students clogging the network. "This being a tech school, it would be kind of strange to charge students for technology they're supposed to have," she says.

The University of Michigan also plans to continue giving its students, faculty, and staff free Internet connections, a service that costs about $1.5 million a year. Michigan hasn't had trouble with music fans gumming up its network. "From time to time, usually in the wee hours, we have seen use in the residence halls at rates that congest the system, but this has not been a serious problem," the provost's office says.

But Johns Hopkins has always taken the view that Internet access is a service the campus community must pay for. Its network is five years old and students have always paid to get online. The current charge is $23 a month. Faculty and staff are charged, too, but their departments usually pick up the tab.