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BUILDING THE ONLINE COMMUNITY: As Schools Become Wired, They Face the Question: What Now?

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  • Lessard, George
    ... From: SpecialReports@eschoolnews.com [mailto:SpecialReports@eschoolnews.com] Sent: Thursday, November 30, 2000 9:35 PM To: glessard@gov.nu.ca Subject: Your
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1 5:48 AM
      -----Original Message-----
      From: SpecialReports@...
      Sent: Thursday, November 30, 2000 9:35 PM
      To: glessard@...
      Subject: Your free special report from eSchool News

      BUILDING THE ONLINE COMMUNITY: As Schools Become Wired, They Face the
      Question: What Now?

      Two years ago, Washburn High School in Minneapolis started an experiment to
      determine whether computer technology could help lower its freshman dropout
      rate, which usually hovers between 30 and 40 percent. First, administrators
      in the 1,400-student school decided to give laptop computers to all the
      members of the freshman class; then, they searched for ways to improve
      communication among teachers, students, parents, and administrators.

      The latter requirement pushed the high school into the forefront of the
      market for web-based community-building tools, a new but rapidly emerging
      software category that uses the internet and browser-based software to
      deliver web templates, online communications tools, and other features of a
      district-wide intranet. The software's tremendous potential has attracted a
      number of suppliers, including School Center Inc. of Carbondale, Ill.;
      Timecruiser Computing Corp. of Fairfield, N.J.; Vista Associates Inc. of
      Natick, Mass.; and world wide web reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic (wwwrrr)
      Inc., also of Minneapolis.

      Washburn High School became a premier partner in a pilot program to test the
      features offered by the wwwrrr@myschool web-based community-building
      product. School officials say the tool changes the way teachers exchange
      information with students dramatically. For instance, teachers now can enter
      class syllabuses online, so all students can access them from a web browser.

      "We have a significant number of transient students-about 15 percent move in
      and out during the school year," noted Renee Jesness, a media specialist at
      Washburn High School. "They often had trouble determining what the classroom
      work was, and their teachers had to spend a lot of time talking with them
      about past and present assignments. With the syllabuses online, teachers now
      can spend their time on other issues." This feature also enables students
      who are sick or traveling with their families to keep up with their

      Web connectivity also can enrich teacher presentations. Online lesson plans
      can include hyperlinks in homework assignments, so students can search the
      web for background materials. For instance, there may include a series of
      links with information about Brazil the day before a South American
      geography lesson.

      Washburn High School plans to incorporate wwwrrr's math and language arts
      courseware into its curriculum. Since all members of the class of 2002 have
      laptop computers, teachers can put tests and quizzes online and the system
      will score them automatically, which should save teachers time.

      Making sound use of the web
      Such tools are a natural follow-on after schools put comprehensive computer
      and networking infrastructures in place-a process that is well underway in
      most academic institutions. In 1994, only 35 percent of K-12 schools in the
      United States had internet access, according to the National Center for
      Education Statistics; by last year, that figure had swelled to 95 percent of

      Furthermore, thanks in large part to the eRate-the federal program that
      gives telecommunications discounts to schools and libraries-high-poverty and
      small schools are just as likely to have internet access as low-poverty and
      large schools. This was not the case in 1997, when only 63 percent of the
      former were connected versus 88 percent of the latter.

      Yet, wiring schools represents only a first step in utilizing internet
      technology; districts have to understand how to use the technology to change
      educational processes. "There is certainly a high degree of interest in how
      schools can use the internet to improve students' learning experiences,"
      said Paul Cole, chief executive officer at Vista Associates.

      Enrico Crocetti, manager of information services at New York's Deer Park
      Union Free School District, left the private sector to help with the
      process. "Businesses need trained employees, but many school administrators
      have limited technical expertise," he said. "By going into educational IT
      [information technology], I thought I would be able to add my insight to
      that issue."

      Since taking his position last year, Crocetti has been trying to introduce
      advanced technology to the district, which has 4,600 students and 560 staff
      members in six buildings. "We do not want products that are on technology's
      bleeding edge-which would mean that we would have to spend time debugging
      the systems-but ones on the leading edge, where advanced features would be
      available to our users but only a limited amount of maintenance is
      required," he noted.

      Crocetti understood that features like electronic mail, calendaring, and the
      web were maturing and could help make the teacher-student interaction more
      productive, as well as develop needed IT skills in students. So, the
      district searched for a web community-building tool and selected
      Timecruiser's SchoolCruiser at the end of 1999. The district plans to use
      SchoolCruiser to create online lesson plans, research materials, remedial
      tools, and help sheets for parents.

      The Deer Park School District was impressed with Timecruiser's sales
      approach. "The company didn't come in with a hard sell; it was more of a
      consultative push, where they were trying to understand what we were looking
      for and determine how we both could work together to improve the educational
      process," said Crocetti.

      The system was deployed in one school last spring and is expected to be
      available in all the district's buildings by the middle of this school year.
      Crocetti expects the SchoolCruiser deployment to improve communications and
      help with teacher scheduling. Each morning, principals arrive at school
      without knowing which teachers are out sick and who the substitutes will be.
      It might not be until after the first period before principals realize that
      classrooms are not covered. With the SchoolCruiser system, however, a
      principal will be able to check each day's teachers list before he or she
      leaves for the office.

      Easy maintenance is key
      Three years ago, the Belthalto, Ill., School District, which has 3,000
      students, eight buildings, and a staff of 210, turned directly to the
      business community to improve its technology. "We found local businesses
      willing to help with not only funding, but also technical guidance," said
      Greg Moats, the district's assistant superintendent.

      Local area networks were installed in school buildings, and the district's
      first links to the internet were constructed. The ratio of computers to
      students has grown; there is now one for every five students in grades K-8
      and one for every three students in the high school.

      As the district put its new computer and network infrastructure in place,
      officials looked for web community-building tools and selected School
      Center, a division of Midwest Internet Consulting Group Inc., as its
      supplier. "We liked the fact that the company provided all of the needed
      components: application development tools, hosting services, and system
      backup," explained Moats.

      The district got the product running in the spring of 1998 and has received
      more than 6,000 hits on its site since that time. School Center's web
      community-building products include teacher web pages that supplement
      classroom materials, a district page that presents activity and event
      information to students and their parents, and an interactive yearbook that
      traces the accomplishment of the school's graduates. "The yearbook has been
      well received and [has] become a great way for us to keep in touch with our
      alumni," noted Moats.

      While web community-building tools offer a number of potential benefits,
      they have been designed to do so with minimal technical involvement from
      teachers and IT administrators. That appealed to Phillips Academy Andover, a
      private high school in Andover, Mass., with 1,000 students and 250
      instructors. "We have a small IT staff, so whenever we look at new systems,
      we need products that are simple to maintain," said Valerie Roman, the
      school's director of technology and telecommunications.

      The high school had been looking to ease communication between its desktops,
      which are a mix of Apple Macintoshes and PCs. The different systems made it
      difficult for users to exchange information, even simple eMail messages. In
      1998, the school examined web community-building products. "Because not all
      of our students are boarders and our teachers wanted to access the system
      from home, we needed a system that supported a common interface-and a [web]
      browser was the obvious choice," Roman said.

      Phillips Academy Andover conducted user focus groups to determine the system
      requirements and hired Gartner Group Inc., a Stamford, Conn., consulting
      firm, to evaluate possible products. Both sources determined that Vista
      Compass K-12, which runs on Domino from IBM's Lotus Development Corp., was
      the best choice for the school.

      The Vista product, like those of its competitors, is designed to push
      routine maintenance chores, such as updating web pages, from academic IT
      staffs to users. Such changes can be difficult because users have varying
      levels of computer expertise. "We wanted a tool that teachers, faculty, and
      staff would be able to work with, even though they may know little or
      nothing about HTML programming," Roman said. The product's online
      community-building tools include a series of fill-in-the-blank forms that
      users can follow to build their own web

      Phillips Academy started to upgrade its system last year, but the process
      turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. The Vista product was
      expected to rely on Domino for basic eMail functions, and these functions
      were scheduled to be in place by the summer of 1999. When the delivery date
      slipped, Vista worked with the school to put another eMail system in place.

      Despite the delay, the initial results have been promising. Since the system
      offers a lot of flexibility in how information is displayed, administrators
      and teachers can highlight information so different constituents can see
      what is pertinent to them. The school calendar is online, so outsiders know
      of any event; anyone with a policy question can examine the student handbook
      online; faculty can use online forms to order supplies like PCs quickly; and
      discussion boards enable students and teachers to discuss class work online.

      The academy is now looking for ways to expand its use of the system. For
      instance, officials want to tie it to a student administration system that
      tracks items such as attendance.

      Time-saving features
      Maintenance also was an issue for the Mahtomedi, Minn., School District,
      which has 3,000 students in four buildings, one educational center, and one
      remote site. The district began using the internet about four years ago when
      its staff built web pages with various development tools. This approach
      required a fair amount of maintenance, did not look as appealing as
      third-party products, and did not support basic features such as eMail.

      In the spring of 1999, the district examined deploying a web
      community-building system. By the summer, the district had selected wwwrrr,
      which has a significant presence in its home state. Mahtomedi officials
      began a pilot program with about 40 teachers in the fall and had the
      complete system operating by June 2000. Mahtomedi expects 50 percent of its
      teachers to use the system for their class work this year and all teachers
      to rely on it by the fall of 2001.

      A bedroom community with a high degree of parent interaction, Mahtomedi had
      been trying to improve communications with parents for some time. Several
      years ago, it installed voice mail systems so parents could leave messages
      with teachers. "Whenever the system isn't working, I hear about it, which
      indicates to me that a number of parents rely on it quite heavily," said
      Dennis Rettke, school superintendent.

      The district views the wwwrrr@myschool system as a logical extension of
      those efforts. Parents will be able to log into the site, examine what work
      has to be done, and then send eMail to the teachers. "We think the system
      will be a big time-saver and will reduce the time teachers spend on
      administrative issues," explained Rettke. "For instance, a simple eMail
      newsletter will enable them to get information about class activities to
      parents quickly."

      The South Kingston Public Schools in Wakefield, R.I., which has 4,400
      students and 500 teachers in one high school, one junior high school, and
      six elementary schools, faced similar problems. A few years ago, high school
      teachers had begun using the web to enhance their classroom teaching, but
      teachers and students worked with a hodgepodge of eMail systems (Hotmail,
      Yahoo! Mail, America Online) from various internet service providers.

      "We had no control over the eMail messages and were unable to tell who was
      sending information from place to place," said John Bilotta, the district's
      instructional technology director. Another issue was that users had to track
      often-obtuse eMail addresses carefully to exchange information.

      The district examined web community-building tools in the winter of 1999 and
      selected SchoolCruiser this past spring. One reason was that the product
      could take a data feed from the district's student information system and
      establish eMail accounts for all users, a process that already has been
      implemented. By June, the district had set up a training program with five
      high school teachers who will act as trainers for other teachers. The
      district expects to roll out the new system gradually during the current
      school year.

      Content with the basic system capabilities, the South Kingston district
      would like to see a few enhancements made to its product. As noted, users
      work with a variety of home eMail systems but now will be forced to use the
      SchoolCruiser software to exchange data. "We would like teachers to be able
      to use whatever front-end mail system they desire to access their messages,"
      Bilotta said. Also, he would like to synchronize community software
      information with data stored in other devices, such as handheld computers.

      The Murphysboro, Ill., School District has 2,400 students and a few dozen
      elementary, middle, and high school buildings. In 1997, the district started
      to use tools such as Microsoft Corp.'s FrontPage to put school information
      up onto various web pages. This approach required that teachers learn basic
      web programming while the district's IT department handled basic
      administration-issues the district preferred to avoid.

      After dabbling with this technique, Murphysboro decided to become an early
      user of the School Center product. "Everyone in the district now has their
      own web page, and building one usually takes only about ten minutes," said
      Steve Carrington, technology coordinator for the district.
      A few parents have used the system to set up special-interest clubs in the
      high school. "Grandparents dial into the web pages to monitor the progress
      of their grandchildren," he said.

      Competing business models
      Web community-building tools are gaining acceptance in technology-driven
      districts, but they face a number of hurdles before mass adoption can occur.
      A number of vendors have entered the market with various business plans-and
      not all will be successful. "We've already seen a couple of our competitors
      go out of business," said Jeanne Foulon, senior vice president of sales and
      marketing at Timecruiser.

      One hotly contested debate centers on the role advertising should play with
      these systems (see sidebar, page 50). Another controversy centers on the
      best way to get these products to users' desktops. There are three
      approaches to deploying these web community-building tools.

      The first is the traditional method of buying software, installing it on a
      local server, and then maintaining the system. Phillips Academy Andover
      followed this approach with its Vista Compass implementation. The school
      spent about $70,000 on the new system, with $55,000 going toward new
      hardware to run the application.

      Companies and schools gradually have been moving away from this model to
      others in which third parties run the software and perform the maintenance.
      The internet is making this possible because a supplier and customer have a
      common communications mechanism, so it becomes simple for employees to
      access web-based systems that run remotely.

      There are a couple of variations on this theme. The first is to rely on a
      portal, which is similar to web search services like Yahoo!, Lycos, and Alta
      Vista. Here, users come to a central site that supports a variety of
      informational services. Timecruiser and wwwrrr use this approach
      exclusively, and Vista offers it as well as a traditional implementation.

      An application service provider (ASP) model is similar to a portal in that
      the vendor maintains the software on its server. However, the users
      immediately come to their own site and not to a common area. School Center
      has followed this approach.

      One of the main benefits with portal and ASP models is they can reduce a
      school's costs. By offloading installation and maintenance chores, schools
      avoid up-front hardware costs, do not have to hire staff to oversee their
      systems, and trade fluctuating system implementation costs for set monthly

      With funding always a key issue, school districts can have difficulty
      gaining approval for the traditional method of buying, installing, and
      maintaining software. ASP and portal vendors have set annual licensing fees
      for their packages, some of which are priced quite low: wwwrrr, for example,
      charges $600 per year for each school. An optional telephony feature-which
      automatically translates text to speech, giving parents who don't have
      access to the internet at home the same ability to tap into the system-costs
      an additional $600 per school, per year. Whether or not vendors will be able
      to maintain such low pricing as well as profitability remains a question.

      Security and training
      The vendors also must clear a few technical hurdles. As schools open up
      their internal networks via the web, they also invite unwanted hackers into
      their systems. Most of the systems' customers have not yet allowed parents
      to access their school's intranet pages.

      Part of the reason is that the tools lack adequate security features.
      Washburn High School is waiting for the next release of wwwrrr@myschool
      before opening its systems up to parents. Most of these systems rely on
      passwords to authenticate users. The user has to type in a special ID and
      password before gaining entry to system resources. Once a district chooses
      to takes this step, it must decide how to administer these features and deal
      with issues such as how to determine which parents want to take part in the
      system and which don't.

      Perhaps the most significant challenge centers on teachers' acceptance of
      these tools, which means dramatically changing the way they interact with
      students, parents, and even administrators. "Some teachers are open to a new
      way of communicating and some are not," admitted Murphysboro's Carrington

      Part of the reason may be that teachers don't feel qualified. Until now, the
      focus of school administrators has been on putting the proper infrastructure
      into place, and little attention has been given to taking the time to train
      teachers to use computers and the internet. A recent Department of Education
      survey found that only one-third of teachers say they feel well prepared to
      use technology in their classes.

      Phillips Academy Andover set up training sessions taught by Vista employees
      as well as the school's own teachers and its IT staff. The IT department
      assigned teachers in various departments to be responsible for conducting
      the training.

      The initial results have been promising. "We've been surprised, because
      there were certain teachers who were not particularly computer literate but
      have turned out to be the most consistent users, putting their syllabuses
      online, holding discussion groups, and offering help online," said Roman.

      Recognizing the need for teacher acceptance, wwwrrr decided to give teachers
      an incentive to update their web pages. "Teachers gain points which can be
      redeemed for items, like travel vouchers," said Paul Gullickson, the
      company's cheif executive.

      The bottom line is whether or not technology can be used to improve the
      educational experience. The early results at Washburn High School have been
      encouraging: the dropout rate was lowered from the 30 to 40 percent range to
      the 20 to 30 percent range. "We're not positive that technology has helped
      lower the dropout rate, but we are hopeful that will prove to be the case in
      the future," said Jesness.
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