Reporter’s Notebook

July 12, 2000 4 min read

On the Technology Midway: Everything But Kewpie Dolls

Step right up, educators, and get your picture taken with a pro football player! Enter now for your chance to take home a free computer! Test your skills on the putting green, and win a prize!

The National Educational Computing Conference, held here June 26-28 at the Georgia World Congress Center, may have seemed at times like a carnival, but it was serious business for the more than 300 vendors peddling their hardware, World Wide Web sites, and related services on the exhibit floor.

Lurking just below the festive surface was the sense that many of the companies here, especially those in the increasingly crowded “e-learning” market, won’t be around at next year’s conference.

“There’s a big shakeout coming,” said Mark D. Johnson, a co-founder and the senior vice president of, which specializes in online publishing tools for schools. “In fact, it’s already starting.”

That’s partly due to the beating that education dot-coms have been taking on Wall Street. But it’s also because so many companies, publicly traded or not, are competing for the same prize—to run the premier education destination on the Web. They all want to own the one site that teachers, students, and parents turn to most often for everything from homework help to lesson plans to online purchasing.

At the moment, as many as 10 companies can claim at least a plausible shot at dominating the market. By next year, one expert here predicted, that number might shrink to two.

Representatives from each of the rivals spent much of their time—and a healthy chunk of their marketing budgets—trying to convince the 12,000 teachers, educators, and technology coordinators here that their product was the best. Not surprisingly, they all had their own spin on the matter.

“No one else does the full spectrum of services like we do,” Sue Collins, a senior vice president of, said in an interview. Her company, which launched in January, has raised an impressive $55 million in venture capital.

But officials with, the online arm of the educational publishing company, said teachers are wary of funny-named newcomers like bigchalk. “Teachers know our brand,” said Victor Aluise,’s content director. “We’ve been around for 80 years.”

America Online Inc. only recently entered the education market, unveiling AOL@School in May. But Terry Crane, the company’s vice president for education products, believes that it will quickly conquer the competition. “We have the staying power and the money to do this,” she said.

Meanwhile, the floor was buzzing with the news—formally announced June 29—that Pearson LLC, the giant London-based media company, was buying Family Education Network, an online service for students and families.

Pearson’s goal, as described in the company’s press release, came as no surprise: “to create the Internet’s premier education source.”

Despite the air of competition, there was one remarkable moment of cooperation: the announcement that more than 80 companies had endorsed a set of technical specifications that will allow all kinds of instructional and administrative software to work together.

It’s hard for most schools today to link data collected by one department—attendance figures, for example—with data from other departments—such as grades or bus routes—because the software used to manage the different types of information usually isn’t compatible. That not only prevents administrators from discovering data relationships that might help improve student performance, but it also means school personnel often have to enter the same data multiple times. (“Gates Downloads a Proposal for Schools,” March 3, 1999. )

The Schools Interoperability Framework, an initiative led by the Washington- based Software Information Industry Association, aims to solve those problems by encouraging use of a standard blueprint.

Among the companies that have agreed to follow the SIF specifications so far are direct competitors such as Chancery Software Ltd. and National Computer Systems, both of which sell student-information-management software, and Microsoft Corp. and Apple Computers Inc."This is an enormous milestone for the industry,” Sue Kamp, the director of education-market initiatives for the software trade group, said at a June 27 news conference announcing the specifications.

Version 1.0 of the specifications covers software for food services, library automation, transportation, and student information such as grades, courses, and discipline records. The next version, now in a draft form, will add assessment software to the mix.

The conference also provided the setting for the release of two reports on school technology.

For More Information

Read “The Power of Digital Learning: Integrating Digital Content.” (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“The Power of Digital Learning: Integrating Digital Content,” published by the CEO Forum on Education and Technology, a Washington-based group of business and education leaders, urges school districts to invest more heavily in electronic- learning resources such as Web sites, CD-ROMs, and databases. The publication also provides guidelines on how schools can integrate such resources, or “digital content,” into the classroom. More information is available online at

And the Eugene, Ore.-based International Society for Technology in Education released standards describing what teachers should know about technology and be able to do with it.

For More Information

Read “National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers.”

The report, “National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers,” builds on earlier publications by ISTE on technology standards for students and ways to connect technology and the curriculum. For more information, see

—Erik Fatemi

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook