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