Companies Lining Up To Offer Schools Free Web Sites
Schools that want to have their own presence in cyberspace without taxing school budgets are finding a number of companies willing to help.
Companies such as the FamilyEducation Co., KOZ Inc., and Computers for Education Inc. are offering schools free World Wide Web sites, e-mail, and education-related content. What they want in return, instead of the schools' money, is the opportunity to display advertisements or wares to students or families--and in some cases, the schools' implied endorsement.
"The gold seal of the local school district holds a lot of weight. That's the biggest stamp of approval there is," said Marc Johnson, a senior analyst at Jupiter Communications Inc., a New York City-based company that studies marketing trends on the Web.
The companies are banking on the fact that education motivates many families to go on-line for the first time, and schools often are families' initial source of expertise on the Web, Mr. Johnson added.
Of course, thousands of school districts and individual schools have already learned the technology of the Web, either by themselves or with the help of local design shops, and maintain extensive Web sites.
But others have not, and now feel pressure to get on the Internet bandwagon.
"A [school] Web site is expected, the same as somebody expects to be able to fax a school, though not every parent has a fax machine," said Yvonne Marie Andres, the president and curriculum director of the Global SchoolNet Foundation, which organizes and supports Web-based learning projects. "It's convenient to have a school Web site, for the people accessing information and also for those putting it up."
The FamilyEducation Co., based in Boston, is perhaps the most aggressive of the companies offering free Web sites. The company's FamilyEducation Network, or FEN, has received the endorsement of prominent education groups, including the National School Boards Association, and recently became part of the content empire of America Online Inc., whose 14 million subscribers make it the world's largest Internet service provider.
Education Week provides some news stories to the network. FEN offers districts a free Web site, on which they can display a wide variety of calendar and other information. (It hosts sites for individual schools, too, but prefers dealing with districts.)
School administrators receive templates that make Web pages easy to create, though sites are limited to text, except for a few images, and have a cookie-cutter look. But the company says it plans next month to release new tools that allow more diversity of design.
The main benefit touted by the company is its content for parents. For years, FamilyEducation Co. has published a parent-oriented newsletter, and the school sites are linked to a Web site that offers parents a stream of features, tips, and chat services about parenting.
The company's payback comes from banner advertisements displayed on the school sites for services aimed at parents, such as banking. Company officials say the ads are meant to be viewed at home, not at school.
To date, about 400 schools and districts are using the free Web sites, sometimes tagging them to existing official school sites. Company officials hope their relationship with AOL, which bought a 20 percent stake in FamilyEducation, will persuade more districts to join.
AOL users will be able to stroll back and forth between the main AOL site, the FEN site, and school district Web sites.
In September, officials of the privately held company outlined an aggressive strategy to a conference of education industry investors in Chicago.
"Just as '95 to '97 was the 'land grab' for connecting consumers from home, '98 to 2000 is the land grab for connecting home to school," Jonathan Carson, the company president, said.
Officials also said the FamilyEducation Network would add an "electronic mall" early next year. Parents and educators will be able to buy products on-line in the categories of curriculum and supplies, travel, student loans, testing and assessment, distance learning, and software and hardware.
KOZ Inc., a Web publisher based in Triangle Park, N.C., offers schools free Web sites and tools to create on-line materials, including student portfolios.
Most of the 4,100 educators and schools that use the KOZ service are participants in the Global Schoolhouse Project of the Global SchoolNet Foundation, a nonprofit group in San Diego.
KOZ places advertising on the school Web sites; schools that don't want the ads may instead pay a fee.
Another company, Computers for Education, based in Murfreesboro, Tenn., made a Web site for every school in the country, and only told the schools about it afterward.
The sites in the company's "American School Directory," started in 1997, list basic information about the school, drawn from questionnaires returned periodically by school employees or community members.
During the 1997-98 school year, the directory received a volley of criticism from school officials who said the sites presented inaccurate data, misled Web surfers into thinking that they were the official school sites, and were a blatant sales vehicle for the company's magazine and wrapping-paper sales.
Tom Wiley, the company's business development manager, said the directory has been changed to address those criticisms. The sites are clearly labeled as unofficial, with prominent links to official school sites, he said. The "school store" listing that used to be on every school site--which led to magazine and paper sales--is now added only at the request of school officials, he said.
Mr. Johnson of Jupiter Communications suggested that schools will continue to see Web-related offers, as Internet companies compete for customers.
One reason is that, in addition to their standing in the community, schools are sources of valuable content.
"There's been difficulty [in the on-line industry] in trying to provide good local content--content that is contextual and relevant to local residents," Mr. Johnson said. "School districts and civic boards are impacting the community in which you live. That creates information people want to have."
Vol. 18, Issue 15, Page 6