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A.F.T. Puts 2 On-Line Services to Technological Test

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The American Federation of Teachers has struck an unusual deal with two electronic networks--Prodigy and America Online--to give the union's 835,000 members a chance to sample on-line services for one year and then choose which network best meets their needs.

A.F.T. members will be asked to complete periodic electronic evaluations and finally issue a "grade'' for each company at the end of the year, according to a union spokesman, Jamie Horowitz.

The move, which the A.F.T. plans to announce at a press conference this week, apparently represents the first time a large education group has offered a choice of on-line services to its members.

"We are attempting to leverage companies rather than have companies leverage us,'' Mr. Horowitz said.

The National Education Association entered into a partnership with America Online in 1992 and began offering the electronic services this past fall. Since then, 3,000 N.E.A. members have signed on to the system.

Attractive Competition

Rather than offer one system, as the N.E.A. has done, A.F.T. leaders argued that giving teachers a choice would make subscribing more attractive.

"A little old-fashioned American competition might be good for members to help them look at what they want,'' said Mr. Horowitz.

Although Prodigy and America Online are distinct in form and overall content, both offer news, educational games, reference materials, an electronic encyclopedia, electronic mail, and other features.

A recent article in PC Magazine found Prodigy to be more user-friendly, while America Online had superior communication features.

Both systems plan to offer a private A.F.T. "forum'' area where members can communicate with each other and scan news about union policies and programs.

With discounts off the standard rates, A.F.T. members will be able to access America Online services for $8.95 a month and Prodigy for $12.95 a month. Charges for electronic mail and other features vary.

As soon as this week, members will be able to log on to both systems through their DOS-based, Macintosh, or Microsoft Windows computers and compare for themselves, according to an A.F.T. statement.

Meanwhile, the courtship of A.F.T. members has already begun.

The two companies have placed advertisements in the March issue of the union's magazine, American Teacher, outlining the various options and advantages of each network.

Brian Ek, Prodigy's director of communications, said this kind of contest reflects the nature of the marketplace.

"Competition is what we live with every single day,'' Mr. Ek said, while acknowledging that such a double contract was rare.

'Electronic Community'

The catalyst for the campaign is the union's desire to become a player in the high-tech world of on-line information.

A.F.T. leaders said they want school personnel to be involved in computer networks so they can exert influence over how the so-called "information highway'' gets built. (See related story, page 31.)

"We don't want to make the same mistake we made with television--not having enough slots for children and education,'' said Mr. Horowitz. Getting more people involved early will give educators more influence, he said.

Albert Shanker, the president of the A.F.T., said he believes that the information network will be invaluable for teachers eager to communicate with each other about such issues as community service and school violence.

"Teachers are isolated in their classrooms, and it is often difficult for our members, who spend their days with children, to share ideas and raise questions with their colleagues,'' Mr. Shanker said.

"This is the first step toward creating an electronic community for teachers,'' he added.

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