A gaggle of Internet companies are offering schools "portal" Web sites that promise to put some of the best educational resources into the hands of teachers and students.
Portals are sites that direct users to other resources and activities in cyberspace. School administrators say they're useful, because many teachers are discouraged by the difficulty of finding superior online educational resources for their classrooms.
"We have to provide teachers with reasons to move away from textbooks and other traditional sources," said Sandra L. Schugren, the director of information services for the Peninsula school district in Washington state.
The problem with the World Wide Web, she added, is that appropriate sites can take a long time to find and are often of uncertain quality.
Portal companies that are trying to prove their usefulness to K-12 teachers, as well as to students and parents, include INET Library Inc., Electric SchoolHouse Inc., FamilyEducation Co., Lycos Inc., Lightspan Partnership Inc., Copernicus Interactive Inc., and ZapMe! Corp.
Most of the sites attempt to provide "one-stop shopping" for high-quality content available online. They employ teachers and others who surf through cyberspace for exceptional Web sites that could enrich classroom activities.
Some portals are striking partnerships with well-known publishers, many of which have their own searchable Web sites. FamilyEducation recently bought Information Please LLC, the almanac and encyclopedia publisher, to supply resources for its TeacherVision.com site. And Copernicus Interactive has made USA Today and Encyclopaedia Britannica information partners in its Copernicus Educational Gateway site, at www.edgate.com.
The 9,200-student Peninsula district has also been a partner with Copernicus, helping refine the portal and compiling Web sites since 1997, Ms. Schugren said. The district has a link to the portal on its own home page.
"We are not saying to every teacher in this district you must use Copernicus, but through our partnership with this company we have put something together for you--and your peers have contributed to it," she said.
The portal sites typically have filters to keep students out of pornographic and other Web sites deemed objectionable for children. Many also allow schools and teachers to customize portions of the sites and link school and home through e-mail lists, homework listings, and other interactive tools.
The portals differ from one another in some respects, but most make saving teachers time a top priority.
If teachers can't gain time because of such services, "this technological revolution will be slow-going," said Jim Van Eerden, one of the founders of Copernicus Interactive, which publicly launched its school portal last week after two years of development.
Portal editors typically tag selected Web material by subject and grade level. At the site, any user--parent, student, or teacher--can search the collection with a single search engine.
Several portals index the materials by the curriculum standards devised by national education organizations. The Copernicus site goes a step further, organizing its resources in a state-by-state "matrix" of standards. A teacher in Texas, for example, can make a few mouse clicks in his or her Web browser and get a list of the state's 4th grade math standards, accompanied by Web links to relevant classroom materials.
The site provides spaces where teachers or school officials can add Web sites, local standards, and homework assignments to its curriculum matrix.
Larry P. Roches, the chief executive officer of Copernicus Interactive, which is based in Greensboro, N.C., predicted in an interview that the space for local content would encourage the sharing of classroom activities among teachers. But schools pay to put up their own information on the otherwise free site.
Most of the sites, in fact, are free--supported by banner advertising and sponsorship deals with corporate partners. So far, the ads are restrained compared with those on commercial Web portals for the general public. Lycos' new portal, LycosZone.com, warns students who click on its banner ads that they are about to leave the education site.
The portal companies are preparing to tap another source of revenue: home shopping for educational products. Peyton Kay, the executive vice president of Electric SchoolHouse, said his site may soon offer schools that have registered with the site a portion of the revenue from online sales to their respective parents.
"When you go online and purchase something, say at Amazon.com, the school will get 5 percent back," Mr. Kay said. "We're testing it in a few markets."
If the portals prove as useful as their developers predict, some experts fear that children who don't own a computer or have access to the Internet at home will be at a disadvantage.
Joyce L. Epstein, the director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said the portal sites probably will help schools. But she added that schools must work to minimize disparities in technology and to communicate with families in other ways, such as newsletters, as well.
Vol. 19, Issue 8, Page 10Published in Print: October 20, 1999, as Technology Update