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Published in Print: March 15, 2000, as Some Schools Feel Burned By ZapMe! Offer

Some Schools Feel Burned By ZapMe! Offer

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If he had his way, Bryon S. Anderson would send the 15 free Pentium II computers his school received recently back where they came from—the ZapMe! Corp. in San Ramon, Calif.

Plymouth Middle School in Plymouth, Minn., where Mr. Anderson works as a media specialist, accepted the computers last year as part of a nationwide rollout by ZapMe!, a leading provider of Internet access in schools. The company promises technical support along with free state-of-the-art computers and high-speed, satellite-directed Internet connections, in exchange for exposing students to advertisements through a small window on the computer screens.

But ZapMe!'s technology simply hasn't worked at Plymouth.

"Our machines have been nonfunctioning and not usable by students," Mr. Anderson said recently. "ZapMe! has not stood up to their side of the bargain."

Computers that arrived in boxes last spring weren't installed by the company until October. Then the Internet connection was unreliable, and ZapMe! still hasn't sent anyone to fix the problem, even though a school technician has called the company weekly to request it, according to Mr. Anderson.

By last December, Mr. Anderson said, he'd decided the "free" computers weren't worth it. "I was frustrated," he said. "I was unimpressed—very disappointed."

Mr. Anderson isn't alone in his frustration. At a Baltimore school, ZapMe! computers were delivered last summer but still haven't been installed. Other schools report that the ZapMe! connections to the Internet aren't dependable enough for teachers to use for scheduled classes.

"There were some issues in installation, and we're going to get to every one of them," Rick Inatome, ZapMe!'s president and chief executive officer, said in an interview last week. He said the company had encountered some unanticipated "challenges" in rolling out its technology and in coordinating technicians to make installations and fix problems.

'Dead' Computer

Founded in 1996, ZapMe! is sort of an online version of Channel One, which offers free cable television equipment to schools in return for their showing advertising-supported newscasts in their classrooms.

Some 6,000 schools have signed contracts with ZapMe!, according to the company, and it has installed computer labs in 1,600 of those schools.

As did Channel One, ZapMe! has attracted criticism from groups concerned about commercialism in schools. Commercial Alert, a Washington-based nonprofit group, spearheaded a campaign this year to impede the company's involvement in schools, claiming it collects personal information about students without the permission of their parents. ZapMe! disputes any accusations that it violates children's privacy. ("Technology Update: Data From Free Computer Labs Raise Privacy Concerns," Jan. 26, 2000.)

ZapMe! "will be a bellwether for commercialism in public schools, as well as the growth of Internet access in schools," said Howard M. Block, the managing director for education services for Banc of America Securities.

So far, the ZapMe!'s financial performance has been underwhelming. ZapMe! stock became publicly traded in October. The value of the stock was about $6 a share last week, down from the initial offering of $11.

While the advertising component of ZapMe! has garnered the most attention at the national and community levels, technical problems with the company's computer labs are the biggest issue at the building level, according to school staff members interviewed for this story.

In a survey of 900 schools conducted by ZapMe! in January, 46 percent of the 218 respondents said their experience with the company was "somewhat worse" or "much worse" than they had expected when they signed up. A third said their experience was "much better" or "somewhat better" than they had expected.

While some school employees say they're reluctant to complain about a free service, they have found the technical problems to be time-consuming and annoying.

Four out of the nine schools with ZapMe! computers in the 15,200-student Iberia Parish school district in Louisiana have had persistent technical problems, according to Sandra C. Brewer, a technology specialist there.

Charlene R. Picheloup, the library media specialist at one of those schools, Loreauville High School, said the ZapMe! computer lab's server was down for a couple of months last fall before someone from the company came out to look at it.

Loreauville High's Internet connection now sometimes works, she said, but teachers don't trust it enough to plan classes around it. Ms. Picheloup said she now regrets having canceled the school's subscription for a dial-up Internet connection, which she said was more dependable than the ZapMe! connection has proved to be.

In addition, Ms. Picheloup has had no luck in getting a replacement for one of the computers that never worked.

"They've had three different people that have come—these were professionals," she said. "They all said it was the same problem: 'It's a dead computer.' "

But Ms. Picheloup said the company didn't ship another one.

At Baltimore City College, a 1,200-student high school in Maryland, the librarian and teachers are frustrated because 15 computers that arrived last June haven't been hooked up at all. ZapMe! sent technicians to take them out of boxes and set them on tables, but not to install them.

"It makes me so mad—we knock ourselves out trying to get stuff for the kids to use, and you get right to the edge and stop," said Elizabeth S. Dunbar, the school's "webmaster" and a technology teacher. "We were told only the ZapMe! people were allowed to touch them. It's tantalizing the kids. It's a box of candy that we're not allowed to open."

Trouble-Shooting

Mr. Inatome, who noted that he had been running ZapMe! for only the past 100 days, said some initial glitches are to be expected with a company that's new and trying something that's never been done before.

Schools should soon start to see improvements with technical support, Mr. Inatome said, because he's reorganized the way logistical problems are handled.

ZapMe!'s satellite-directed technology, while intended to provide much faster connections to the Internet than what schools already had, created some problems at the outset of the rollout, he acknowledged.

He also pointed out that ZapMe! subcontracts for all of its installation and repair work. Technicians in some parts of the country are better prepared than others, he said.

"Why the spottiness? Technical resources are not the same across the country," Mr. Inatome said.

At some schools, the ZapMe! installations and technical support have gone smoothly. Perry W. Polk, the technology and information-services director for the 36,000-student Mount Diablo (Calif.) Unified School District said he hadn't heard of any serious difficulties with the nine ZapMe! labs in his district.

In some other schools, recurring technical problems with ZapMe! computers have recently been resolved.

At Castle High School in Newburgh, Ind., for example, technicians finally got computers that arrived last October functioning well by late January, according to a media specialist at the school.

Likewise at Kenilworth Junior High school in Petaluma, Calif., a technician got a lab of 15 ZapMe! computers working this past month after problems that had persisted since last fall.

"I had a bad server, and there was a question about whether the satellite [dish] was turned the right way," said Connie H. Williams, the library-media teacher for the school.

She said her impression of ZapMe! was that the company "spent a lot of money and a lot of time in getting the sites to buy in to them, and getting their training aspect together and sales out there, and didn't back it up with the bottom of the pyramid—with the reliability of the technology."

But Ms. Williams added that problems are to be expected if schools have to rely on "corporate America" rather than taxpayer dollars to buy technology.

They'll have to "take the bad with the good," she said.

Vol. 19, Issue 27, Page 5

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