Gore lashes out at eRate foes: America must close schools’ ‘digital divide,’ Veep declares

Vice President Al Gore, attending a technology conference in Washington late in February, lashed out at opponents of the eRate, pledging to defend the program and charging that legislators who seek to restrict billions in technology discounts for schools and libraries are threatening the future of the nation’s neediest students.

“There are those who would pick the money from the pockets of our poorest schools,” Gore said. “I would like to say to them loudly and clearly: Your effort to block the eRate is an effort to ration information and ration education, and it would darken the future of some of our brightest students. We will not let you do it.”

Gore’s declaration came during the Connecting All Americans conference in Washington, D.C., Feb. 24-27, where fears ran high that Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is drafting legislation to cut back eRate funds. The eRate program, part of the Universal Service Funds mandated by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, would give $2.25 billion in federal discounts to help public schools and libraries connect to the internet.

No bill to scale back the eRate had yet been drafted, said Mitch Rose, an aide to Stevens. Rose told reporters that both parties are having conversations and floating proposals through both houses of Congress to make alterations to the program.

“Nobody is sitting here saying let’s kill the program; let’s cripple it,” Rose said. “There is just a general concern about the rate increase.”

At issue is $625 million being collected for the first half of the year from telecommunications companies (telecos) to subsidize the discounts. Among the many issues connected to the eRate, the one legislators reportedly fear most is that residential phone rates will be increased to help cover the outlay by the telecos. Business rates, according to Stevens’ office, have already gone up 4.9 percent as a result of the program.

eRate controversy

It was Stevens who prompted the congressional General Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate the Schools and Libraries Corp., the nonprofit organization established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to administer eRate funds. The GAO ruled in February that the FCC overstepped its authority by creating the organization.

The Senate is expected to hold a hearing on the GAO ruling. And Stevens has asked for an FCC report on the implementation of Universal Service provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The report is due April 10.

While the Schools & Libraries Corp. (SLC) continues to maintain its official silence on the controversy, one agency insider told eSchool News that the SLC does not expect Congress to act on the GAO’s ruling. The office had collected more than 30,000 applications for eRate discounts within weeks of the program’s official opening in January.

With so many applicants, some are wondering how far funds will go to cover schools’ expenses. Ira Fishman, head of the SLC, said recently that schools “most in need”‹many of whom are entitled to reimbursements up to 90 percent of their technology expenses‹would be awarded funds first, should requests exceed available funds.

If big city schools are put in the neediest category, the SLC’s $625 million first-half funding would be exhausted in a hurry. New York City schools alone reportedly have asked for $200 million in eRate discounts, for example.

Internet School Filtering Act

A bill introduced by Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., would force schools and libraries to regulate internet access by means of content-filtering software before they would qualify for eRate discounts.

McCain’s bill, cosponsored by the committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, would require schools and libraries to install filtering software before they could apply for the eRate.

A related measure, sponsored by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., was introduced last November. Coats’ bill would prevent commercial distribution of online materials deemed “harmful to minors.” Coats is also co-sponsoring the McCain bill, along with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., whose state is home to Microsoft and the filtering company NetNanny.

“We have an obligation to parents that their children will have some protection when [parents] are not in the home,” McCain said. “That’s what this is all about.”

Many disagree. Critics of the McCain bill are saying it is yet another attempt to forestall the collection and distribution of eRate funds. McCain‹whose campaign contributors have included political action committees of AT&T, Sprint, and U.S. West‹has been vocal in expressing his opposition to the eRate.

To receive a subsidy under the McCain bill, a school would have to meet a new requirement. It would have to certify it was using screening software to protect children from accessing web sites with objectionable content. Libraries would need to have at least one computer available for public use that was running screening software.

McCain’s bill “takes away the ability of schools to make a decision at the local level about whether or not to use blocking or filtering software,” the National Education Association’s John Bernstein told eSchool News. “It puts up one further obstacle to successfully having schools apply for the eRate discounts.”

The bill’s chances of passage are unclear. Observers note that the Republican majority opposes Clinton administration proposals to set voluntary national testing standards. Republican opposition is grounded on the argument that such standards would violate local control. Opponents say local control also would be undermined by a mandate as specific and invasive as the one contained in the McCain bill.

But the CDT’s Weitzner sees the McCain bill as a real threat. “This bill is a very serious proposal and is gathering support daily,” Weitzner said. “[It] could be passed.”

Telecos complaining

The telecos agreed in 1996 to underwrite schools’ and libraries’ internet expenses, but they have since begun to lobby against the program, complaining that internet service providers aren’t being asked to pitch in, too.

FCC Chair William Kennard said the commission is taking steps to help the telecos balance losses.

In the past two years, he said, the FCC has cut access charges for long-distance companies by $2 billion, with the theory that those savings would be used to offset eRate costs.

But there’s no evidence of the impact of those savings, and Kennard sent a letter to the three biggest long-distance companies in February asking them to show cause for believing the savings are not simply being added to company profits.

“If they have chosen to pocket those extra dollars, I want to know about it, and you need to know about it,” he said.

The amount of a school’s discount depends on factors such as the number of free or reduced-price lunches it serves and whether it is located in a rural or urban area.

The SLC set off alarm bells when it announced plans to collect less money from the telecos in the first six months than originally intended. The initial teleco contribution had been pegged at $2.25 billion for the year, but the SLC said it would collect only $625 million for the first half of the year. The agency based the reduction on its stated belief that fewer schools than originally expected would actually be ready to apply for funds in the first half of 1998. SLC officials indicated they could increase the amount of funding collected in the second half of the year to make up for the difference if more schools than anticipated applied right away.

But Gore, Kennard, and others at the Connecting All Americans conference emphasized the need for maximum financing to make sure inner-city and rural schools and libraries have the same opportunities as suburban schools.

“It is critical that we connect all our children to the internet to give them the tools that will help shape their future,” Gore said. “We must bridge the ‘digital divide’ and provide a direct link to all classrooms, so low-income and rural students don’t get left behind. All of us must stand together to oppose those who would take the future from our kids by destroying this program.”

Gore cited numbers from a new study by the Department of Education (ED) that shows the share of schools connected to the internet has nearly doubled to 80 percent and the number of classrooms wired has increased nine times since the Clinton administration took office in 1994.

“We have made great progress,” Gore said, “but it’s not even close to what we need.”

The ED study he cited shows schools with 50 percent or more minority students and 71 percent or more low-income students still lag behind.

General Accounting Office


Federal Communications Commission


Schools and Libraries Corporation


Sen. John McCain



Feds open huge airwave auction: Winners to rule school wireless transmissions

A mammoth federal auction of the airwaves is under way in Washington, D.C., and it will have a major impact on how your schools receive wireless telephone, data, and video transmissions during the next 10 years.

In a process that could last until June involving hundreds of millions of dollars, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began auctioning licenses late in February for a new technology called local multipoint distribution service (LMDS).

At least one bidder, Virginia Tech, is planning on using the airwaves to provide internet services to K-12 schools. Erv Blythe, Tech’s vice president for information systems, told eSchool News that area K-12 schools would be among the first users of an advanced network made possible by the wireless technology.

New competition

The FCC hopes companies using the new wireless technology will provide services that compete with local phone and cable companies.

The new service’s delivery is akin to cellular phone service. But to receive phone, television, or data transmissions, customers need a small receiver dish in or near a window.

On the block are 986 licenses. Half would give an owner the right to occupy a large swath of airwaves ‹ 1,150 megahertz ‹ letting a company simultaneously provide 16,000 phone calls and 200 video channels. That represents the biggest slice of airwaves ever auctioned by the government.

A typical FCC bandwidth auction is enough for one radio station; 1,150 megahertz is enough for 13,000 radio stations, Blythe said. In fact, the FCC is auctioning off an information-carrying capacity that exceeds the capacity currently being used by all television, radio, and cellular services in nation‹”everything that’s out there,” Blythe said.

Wireless advanced networking

With the spectrum, Blythe said, Virginia Tech could allow wireless video, voice, and data transmission for businesses, schools, hospitals‹a regional version of the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV). The BEV is a pioneering project that began offering online access to the entire Blacksburg community at a time when the internet was little known outside academic settings.

Wireless technology could drive down costs for schools in three ways, said Blythe: by reducing the amount schools spend on costly infrastructure, by increasing competition for services such as access to the internet, and by developing what Blythe calls “a next generation advanced network” much more quickly than would otherwise be possible.

Advanced networking consists of multiple data and voice applications, such as two-way video conferencing and internet capabilities, running simultaneously off the same high-speed “pipe,” Blythe said. This kind of network would be round-the-clock and very inexpensive.

FCC Auction

One big license and one small license will be auctioned in each of 493 separate markets, every one roughly the size of a metropolitan area.

Participating companies range from established telecommunications players such as Southwestern Bell and U.S. West to upstarts such as Teligent Inc. and WinStar.

Before the auction, all companies were required to give the FCC up-front payments. The more money a company put down, the more markets it can bid on.

By this measure, the biggest potential bidder is WNP Communications Inc., which gave the FCC a $100 million down payment. Backers include venture capital funds Norwest Capital and Chase Manhattan Venture Fund.

To help companies attract financing and to compensate them for the FCC’s decision not to let companies pay off winning bids in installments, the FCC is offering discounts for smaller companies. The discounts, ranging from 25 percent to 45 percent, are taken off a company’s total winning bids after the auction closes. The company pays the balance to the government.

The lower a bidder’s gross revenue, the larger the discount. Companies with $15 million or less in gross revenues get 45 percent off, companies with $16 million to $39 million get 35 percent off, and companies with from $40 million to $75 million get 25 percent off.

A recent analysis by The Washington Post showed these bidding discounts will benefit mainly wealthy venture capitalists and those already in the business, rather than newcomers.

The Post also reported that the FCC denied Virginia Tech’s request to be classified as a bidder with no revenue. The designation would have allowed the school to get a 45 percent discount on the price of its license.

The FCC found that the nonprofit Virginia Tech Foundation, which is financing and carrying out the project, has endowments totaling roughly $78 million, $3 million over the limit required for the “small business ” designation. The foundation’s money should be counted as revenue, said the commission, which has never before considered a bidding application from a nonprofit university project. The $500 million the university gets annually from tuition, state aid, and other sources also was taken into account by the FCC.

There will be no on-site bidding in the auction. Bids will be placed by phone or by computer. The auction ends when there are no new bids on any licenses.

Federal Communications Commission




Virginia Tech


Blacksburg Electronic Village



Gates’ Senate testimony triggers worries about school software

Bill Gates would have preferred to address the American Association of School Administrators convention, but the most powerful man in the computing world instead found himself defending his business practices before the Senate Judiciary Committee in a battle of rhetoric that could have lasting implications for your schools.

Gates, CEO of Microsoft Corp., appeared before the committee on March 3 along with two of his fiercest rivalsÐJim Barksdale of Netscape and Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems. The industry leaders were invited to Washington by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Judiciary Committee and an outspoken critic of what the senator has termed Microsoft’s “predatory pricing practices.”

Also invited to testify were Michael Dell of Dell Computers, Doug Bergum of Great Plains Software, and Stewart Alsop, a venture capitalist and former market analyst.

At issue is whether Microsoft has used its leverage as the dominant player in the operating system (OS) market to extend its rule into other areas, such as web browsers and office management software. The Senate probe is running in tandem with a lengthy investigation of Microsoft by the Department of Justice (DOJ), which has charged the company with violating antitrust laws by bundling its web browser, Internet Explorer (IE), with its Windows OS.

According to Peter Grunwald, president of the market research firm Grunwald Associates, the outcome of Microsoft’s battles could have a huge impact on your schools. “The machinations on the Hill, and perhaps even more importantly, any antitrust rulings made by [DOJ] are important to educators because they will affect the kinds of software and content choices that schools will have down the road,” Grunwald said.

“A monopolist has to play by different rules”

In prepared statements at the outset of the hearing, both Barksdale and McNealy argued that Microsoft, which enjoys better than a 90 percent share of the OS market, must be held to a different standard.

“There is nothing wrong with being a monopoly,” said Barksdale. “But a monopolist has to play by different rules.”

Gates vigorously disputed the claim his company is a monopoly, arguing that Microsoft faces stiff and continuous competition. Given the volatile nature of the computer industry, Gates said, the hold his company has on the market share is always tenuous. “The products that Microsoft makes have very short lifespans,” Gates told the committee.

“Can any Microsoft product endure every competition? The answer is no.”

Gates expressed his concern that any regulation of Microsoft would have a negative impact not only on his company but on the industry as a whole. “This is a market where no one can restrict output,” he said. Gates pointed out that the computer industry relies heavily upon ingenuity and creativity for its growthÐqualities that should not be stifled for fear of punishment, he said.

But McNealy disagreed. “People argue that software is different, but it’s no different than the railroad or telecommunications industries,” he said.

McNealy said an operating system is like the official language of the computing world. He argued that Microsoft’s Windows is so entrenched as the dominant OS that for computer manufacturers to embrace a new platform would be like the United States switching its official language from English to Dutch.

Antitrust experts said the law holds monopolies to a higher standard than their smaller competitors. While there is nothing inherently wrong with having monopoly power, experts said, the courts have ruled that using such power to maintain one’s dominance or to extend it into other markets is wrong.

“Predatory” tactics

One of the ways the DOJ charges Microsoft uses its OS leverage to extend its dominance into other markets is by forcing computer manufacturers who install Windows to install Internet Explorer as well. Called “bundling,” the practice was challenged by the DOJ. Without acknowledging wrongdoing, Microsoft agreed to stop bundling.

Despite Microsoft’s agreement, the DOJ alleges Microsoft has continued to enter into exclusionary agreements with other companiesÐa practice its competitors charge is unfair.

Hatch challenged Dell’s assertion before the committee that his company doesn’t have such an exclusionary agreement with Microsoft. Hatch cited examples of calls his staff made to five Dell sales representatives in which none of the five offered an alternative browser to IE.

“Despite Netscape’s predominance in the browser market, you push [IE],” Hatch said. “How do you know what your customers want if you don’t give them a choice?”

Another senator said his staff had tried a similar experiment, calling Dell sales reps and asking whether they could get a Dell computer custom-built with a Windows OS and a Netscape browser. All of the sales reps said no, they couldn’t do that. When asked why not, one replied, “Because Microsoft won’t allow us to.”

In response, Dell said his company isn’t obligated to offer things that are readily available on the internet. Netscape Navigator can be downloaded for free from Netscape’s web site, he said. When asked why it wouldn’t be good business practice to offer Netscape to his customers, Dell replied, “We do offer it to some of our larger customers who demand it.”

Barksdale told the committee, “We aren’t in a position to ask for exclusive licenses, because we’re subject to market forces. Normally, if you ask a company for an exclusive license, they’ll tell you to go take a walk.” But Microsoft’s position in the market allows it to do this, he said. And companies are afraid to say no for fear of losing their licensing agreements with the software giant.

“We’re going to lose our choice as consumers”

McNealy warned the committee of the danger to consumers if Microsoft’s business practices aren’t held in check. “Innovation must be allowed to happen,” he said. As long as Microsoft flexes its muscles to keep smaller companies from competing on a level playing field, McNealy said, “we’re going to lose our choice as consumers.”

One senator expressed concern that as Microsoft’s power continues to increase, the company’s prices keep rising. “If your industry were much more competitive, your prices would be lower,” he challenged Gates. The senator pointed to Microsoft’s profit marginÐat 24 percent of the company’s sales, it’s astronomically high for the computer and software industryÐas evidence that customers are losing in the war with Microsoft as well.

But not all the senators were of the same opinion. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., questioned whether the federal government should take sides in a lawsuit. Sessions cited the Justice Department’s antitrust case against IBM in the early 1980s which, after costing the U.S. millions of dollars in federal money and IBM its stronghold on the computer market, was ultimately dismissed.

One thing that everyone who testified agreed upon is that intrusive government regulation is not the answer. “I don’t think we need any new laws,” McNealy said, “just enforcement of the existing laws.”

McNealy called upon the government to scrutinize the practices of Microsoft. “We can use the help of the government to enforce the laws of the land,” he said.

Just what will come of the Senate hearing, if anything, remains to be seen. What is clear: Microsoft is in for a long stint of intense government scrutiny.

“I believe that Microsoft is in position to become the sole provider of operating systems within the next 10 or 20 years,” Alsop predicted. Yet, he added, it could be “potentially disastrous” for the government to regulate the computer industry. “The question remains: ‘What can we do about the problem of fair competition within the existing system of economics?'” Alsop said.

Meanwhile, DOJ’s probe of Microsoft is intensifying as well. DOJ has subpoenaed internet service providers America Online, Sprint, EarthLink, and MCI to investigate whether Microsoft’s contracts with the internet service providers are exclusionary in nature. And at least 11 state attorneys general are contemplating legal action against Microsoft as well.


IBM bets NetPCs will score with schools

Just when you thought you’d seen the last of network computers‹that loudly heralded, low-cost computing alternative that many were predicting would be the perfect solution for schools still battling those hefty kid-to-computer ratios‹here comes IBM.

The network computer, aka “NetPC,” is a scaled-down machine that derives most of its power from a central server. With its rock-bottom price tag and sealed-case security features (no floppy disk drive), it was supposed to replace the PC in your classrooms. But then in December the price of full PCs hit the floor, and you could get a desktop that’s much more powerful for about the same price.

Sounding the death knell of the NetPC? Don’t bet on it.

Judith Winkley of IBM told eSchool News the company will soon reveal several major customers who bought between 30,000 and 40,000 of the stripped-down computers. None of these major buyers are schools, but Winkley said IBM views K-12 education as a viable audience for its NetPCs.

IBM Vice President Jim Gant also said the company expects to sell as many of the machines in the first quarter as it did in its fourth. That goes against the industry norm, when computers makers normally see holiday spending ebb into first-quarter declines.

“It’s a nice growth curve,” said Gant, adding that he expects it to continue.

NEC, Dell, Compaq, and Gateway all came sprinting out onto the network computer field earlier this year. Even so, network computers haven’t caught on like some predicted.

Some of the problems? Slow networks, security, a lack of standards among makers, and few of the Java-based applications that would really make working off a network (like the internet) a great idea.

IBM said it’s working on those problems. One solution will be to package Java-based e-Suite applications with some machines. Later this quarter IBM will address security fears by releasing technology that will allow users to access their networks using a “smart card” and password.

And in January, NetPC makers met to agree on standards that would increase operability between their machines.

The NBT (next big thing)?

IBM and the other network computer makers are counting on a small market niche to keep network computers alive. Many think schools will have a big place in that small niche.

The NetPC was supposed to be this year’s NBT (next big thing). In June, 12 major manufacturers claimed to be demonstrating prototype NetPCs or pledging to make the low-cost, sealed-case systems. Then the network-computer concept began to lose favor.

By November’s Comdex (a computer industry convention), several players had dropped out‹including IBM‹and many more were stalled in production.

Then, in December, PC prices went south. It was a happy Christmas for everyone.

When five major computer makers all introduced machines for under $1,000 at the year’s end, the standard machines became competitive with the NetPC market.

NetPC advocates haven’t given up, though. Those proponents argue that network computers still are ideal for schools, because slighter machines reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO). Network computers are supposed to reduce your TCO partly because their purchase prices are less than the prices of personal computers, but also because network computers can be administered and updated easily.

In a school network, NetPCs normally would be linked to a central server that takes care of almost all major management duties such as software upgrades and hardware troubleshooting ­ even from a server in another building. This unified computing management reduces maintenance and administration costs.

The network computer “truly gives the opportunity to lower the cost of an individual desktop,” said Winkley. “The IT staff physically can’t keep desktops running. Kids can deconstruct PCs real fast.”

Microsoft doesn’t buy it

“Hold on, there,” say NetPC competitors. Those opponents are led by Microsoft, whose Windows 95 operating software can’t be run on the little machines. Windows NT is Microsoft’s network software. Microsoft and other PC boosters claim the administration and maintenance costs of PCs are fully competitive with the long-term costs of NetPCs. And with new tools being developed, such as Microsoft’s Zero Administrative Windows (ZAW) and Novell’s Z.E.N.works (Zero Effort Network‹see Page 8), they add, you’ll soon be able to perform remote computer administration on PCs just as easily as you can on the scaled-down NetPCs.

Manufacturers of the NetPCs are hoping that network computing still will be attractive to schools, though, because of the equipment’s security and ease of use.

“Compared to keeping desktops up and making sure the software is current as well as the speed of being able to roll out applications‹the network computer is superior to anything you can do in PCs today,” said Winkely.

The NetPCs can be virtually closed down to unauthorized users, providing maximum security against the most expert teen-age hackers.

George Warren, a spokesman for Dell Computers, says NetPCs can be especially attractive for schools in at least two situations: One, in remote schools that lack sufficient support staff, and, two, as single-task workstations used for such things as research in school libraries, data entry in administrative offices, or for eMail and internet surfing in teachers’ lounges.

Still, nobody’s making grandiose promises about the future of NetPCs and schools anymore.

“We’ve seen this market burned on a number of occasions,” Warren said. Dell is taking a “conservative” approach to marketing its network computers to schools. “We’re giving [schools] compatibility and reliability and keeping the phone calls to support down to a minimum.”

Look before you leap

Stacy Hand, a product manager at Gateway 2000, echoes that circumspection. “We see a place for [NetPCs] in schools,” he said. “It’s not great for everything, but we feel that there is a specific market. You don’t have CD-ROMs or floppies, so you don’t have to worry about people loading inappropriate content onto your system.”

Gateway 2000 began offering a NetPC called the e1000N‹a sealed-case version of the slightly more flexible e1000‹for around $1,000 in mid-January.

Soon after the first-generation network computers were put on the market, GartnerGroup Inc., an information-technology research firm, issued a report advising customers against leaping too quickly onto the network computing bandwagon.

Today’s networks might not be ready to support a server-centric computing model, said the report, “Network Computing: The Rest of the Story.” You’ll need to make major investments in your infrastructure, Gartner warned, as well as increase‹not decrease‹your support staff.

That’s because a highly reliable network is imperative, the report explained. Working offline is nearly impossible with most first-generation NetPCs. In addition, the older wiring in some facilities probably won’t sustain the increased bandwidth necessary to support network computing, according to the report.

Peter Grunwald, president of Grunwald & Associates, says the NetPC‹like any useful piece of equipment‹has a place in schools as long as educators aren’t being “short-changed.”

You have to be careful manufacturers or resellers don’t try to dump used or sub-standard equipment on your schools, said Grunwald. Another problem, Grunwald said, can be vendors who provide schools with a product line that is soon dropped. That happened with the Apple IIes, Grunwald said, and some schools were left with “orphaned machines.”

Some analysts think the potential of network computers increases when the machines are combined with a leasing program. After the lease has expired, you can turn in the old machines for newer, updated versions. Under such an arrangement, upgrades might become just a memory, because you’d always be working with the latest hardware.

The leasing option might be especially attractive for schools where constraints on annual budgets put technology out of reach but where funds are readily available for monthly expenses such as leased computers.

Several major hardware makers now offer leasing options and special hardware pricing for schools.



Dell Computers


Gateway 2000





What is an eSchool?

As I’ve been crisscrossing the country in recent weeks, many friends and colleagues have asked me to fill them in on the idea of an “eSchool.” So I thought you might like to hear a little about it, too.

In a nutshell, an eSchool will be the ultimate outcome of all the dreaming, dedication, and dollars America is investing right now to create the ideal learning environment for the next millennium.

As you know as well as I do, America now operates in a global economy, in an ever more competitive world market. As a result, the nation needs a work force far better educated than any that has come before. We need well-educated, creative, flexible citizens who can understand and successfully negotiate rapid change. Today’s students must “learn to learn” if they are to cope with the world we see evolving now.

In the years immediately ahead, America must find a way to move from the old school to the eSchool.

An eSchool is what visionary educators are building to replace the factory-model educational facilities that were common during most of the century just ending.

The old school was well suited to a homogeneous student population, a learning environment in which all students and all school employees looked pretty much alike, thought pretty much alike, and had pretty much the same needs. It was a place where a settled body of knowledge enjoyed a broad consensus.

But as society was getting more complicated, education research began to notice that each student is unique, has a specific learning style, acquires knowledge best when interacting with the material being studied and sometimes even when directing her or his own learning.

At just that moment, technology made it possible to provide the individualized instruction the research called for. In this very issue, in fact, you can read about the interactive curriculum systems, powerful new computers, sophisticated software, all the new and emerging technologies that enable you and your colleagues actually to create the learning environment these times demand.

Education today is on yet another new frontier. To guide our journey, the concept of the “eSchool” was born. In the days and months ahead, eSchool News and its electronic companion (at http://www.eschoolnews.com) will strive to polish and perfect that shorthand term.

So please subscribe, contribute. Let us hear from you.

Join us and your fellow pioneers as we strive first to visualize and then to build that ideal learning environment for the new millennium.

Gregg W. Downey

Editor & Publisher


Three firms debut new breed of server designed to take the worry out of networks

If your schools suffer from a shortage of qualified computer network administrators or lack adequate wiring to handle traditional network configurations, there was good news for you at DEMO 98, a trade show for emerging technologies held late in February in Indian Wells, Calif. The show, which featured devices soon to be rolled out as commercial products, highlighted a new category of single-purpose machines promising to provide no-fuss, low-cost network computing for schools and other users.

So far, three companies‹Cobalt Microserver, Sun Microsystems, and Data General Corp.‹have debuted the new machines, called “internet access appliances.” Think of them as Cuisinarts without all the attachments.

The model receiving the most attention at DEMO 98 was the Network Utility Box (NUB), created by Data General Corp.’s THiiN Line division.

The NUB is a mini network server. It does what the big servers do‹namely, connects computers in a local area to each other and to the internet. But it can make those connections without wires. Best of all, it can do all that for $500, about a tenth of what you’d pay for a heftier server. Although designed for a small office or home environment, the company sees plenty of applications for the scaled-down server in K-12 schools.

Unlike the big servers, the NUB is compact, easy to use, and requires no maintenance, said Craig Heim, product marketing director for the Westboro, Mass.-based THiiN Line. The box is about the size and shape of a home doorbell, Heim said‹or, stretching for an educational comparison, about the size of a Daytimer, a meatloaf, or “four erasers.”

The NUB provides wireless service, freeing library labs and classrooms from wiring constraints. The machine will talk to your internet service provider (ISP) via any method‹including standard analog modem, ISDN, x-DSL, or cable. Running on a 56 Kbps modem, the box can connect as many as eight PCs, laptops, or thin clients. With higher speeds, however, hundreds of users can work from one box.

Another nice little trick is that NUB will allow more than one user to connect to the internet simultaneously from one ISP account‹something you normally can’t do with commercial accounts.

But wait a minute. Doesn’t this sound a lot like last year’s industry disappointment, the network computers, or “NetPCs,” which were supposed to do what full-power PCs did for a lot less money?

“I don’t think so,” said James Staten, an analyst with the independent research firm Dataquest. “If you want to have a server in your school, it takes you a lot of time to configure that box. It takes a full-time person to understand networking, protocols, and applications. With the thin server, you take the box, hand it to the teacher, they plug it in, open their web browser, configure it in five minutes, and they’re done.”

Even if the price of traditional servers were to fall, Staten added, additional expenses soon would pile on. The necessary networking software alone could set you back $700, not to mention the ongoing costs of maintenance and administration. In view of all the add-ons, Staten said, “the cost of the box is really inconsequential.”

“Sure, servers that are $2,500 or higher now could come down to $1,500 or $2,000 next year,” Heim conceded. “But the ease of use is a big factor. Who wants to manage Windows NT when you can have a plug-and-play device that requires no management?”

Alternative to WinTel

The appliance line that includes NUB is being developed as an alternative to the WinTel way of computing, said Heim.

“Thin,” or scaled-down, machines do one thing‹or limited things‹whereas robust computers do many. The advantage to these “special-purpose devices” is that they are simple, easy to use, and cost effective, according to Heim.

He likes to compare the thin machine to familiar single-use appliances‹such as a blender. In the same way “a blender offers you only the functions you’d expect from a blender,” a NUB offers you only the network-server functions of the bigger computers, not all the additional things the bigger computers could do.

The concept leads to increased efficiency, Heim said. “The failure of any one thing brings the other things down.” THiiN Line appliances are more worry-free, Heim said, because they only perform functions that don’t require much maintenance.

With this technology, the internet will be streamed into schools like electricity or water, the company promises. And the NUB will be as forgettable as the fuse box or water meter. “It won’t need any maintenance,” Heim said. “It doesn’t need anyone to go out and do routine things to it. There’s no system administrative functions for this device. Plug it in; it works in five minutes. You’ll never need to look at it again.”

Look, Ma, no wires

A wireless system provides an alternative to connecting PCs in a lab via an ethernet. Setting up a network takes a lot of hardware, software, and technical expertise. The NUB, however, is a sealed box that contains all the necessary hardware and software. It can connect to the internet using regular or high-speed phone lines or cable modems, and it can connect computers within 150 feet. Additional “repeaters” can extend the range in 150-foot increments.

With wireless capability, your students could connect to the internet from anywhere in the library, lab, or classroom‹possibly with laptops or thin clients, scaled-down PCs that basically allow you just to browse the web. Merely open the laptop or turn on the client, boot up the operating system, and you’ve got an immediate, continuous wireless connection to the internet, manufacturers say.

“There is a compelling need for a new category of internet appliance, one that lets users access the internet both seamlessly and simultaneously,” said Chris Shipley, industry analyst and executive producer of DEMO 98. “[W]ireless network utility boxes might be the solution to getting multiple laptops, PCs, or other information-enabled devices onto the net quickly and easily, without having to be tethered to network cables.”

Wireless access also means easier networking in old or historic school buildings, said Dataquest’s Staten. For schools such as El Paso (Texas) High School, built in the early 1900s, wiring can pose special challenges.

“It’s very expensive, and it takes a very good contractor to do that well so it doesn’t ruin the aesthetics of the building,” said Pat Sullivan, executive director of technology for the El Paso Independent School District.

In the days before the district was cabled, she explored wireless connectivity with the Department of Defense in nearby White Sands. The department was willing to provide wireless service to El Paso schools, but at costs that were “exorbitant,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan was lucky enough to have expert help when her schools were cabled through a project with Time-Warner. Otherwise, she concedes, inexpensive, high-quality wireless would have been the way to go.

Proxy server

The NUB can act as a proxy server, caching pages from the web for later use. “Cache” means storing data‹in this case, from the internet‹on local computer memory. Computers at individual schools might also cache information from a computer at the central district office. The proxy server can do this during off hours when the network is free.

A proxy server can also bypass time-consuming downloads from the internet when pages that have already been called up are requested again. The proxy simply retrieves the document for subsequent requests from local memory.

“Whenever you grab a web page, especially over a modem, you wait forever,” Staten said. “That can be a real problem in a school, especially when kids only have 30 minutes on the web.”

THiiN Line


Data General Corporation


El Paso School District


California Educational Data Processing Association’s web page on proxy servers and K-12 schools:


Cobalt Microserver


Sun Microsystems



Michigan governor proposes $30M tech plan

Gov. John Engler of Michigan has proposed a $30 million plan to make more computers available to schools.

“If we take these steps, Michigan minds will power the 21st century just as our hands did in the 20th century by putting America on wheels,” Engler said.

Money for the three-year plan will be tapped from the Renaissance Fund, an account set aside for economic development.

The plan includes 100 grants of up to $10,000 this year and next year to schools, libraries, and other community centers to expand the number of computers available to students. In addition, 200 grants of up to $10,000 will be given to teachers who find creative ways of using computers in their classrooms.

Michigan will also create a state Virtual University that will make up-to-date job training courses available to businesses via computer. Money from the technology plan will fund its start-up costs. The program is expected to be up and running later this year.

Rep. Lingg Brewer, D-Holt, who chairs the House Advanced Technology and Computer Development Committee, said Engler’s proposal “sends us in the right direction.”

“But we need to be careful that we don’t have state awards competing with federal awards for these programs,” Brewer said.


Novell’s Z.E.N. can cut your network costs

Novell Inc. has just unveiled Z.E.N.works (Zero Effort Network), an application that could make it easier for schools to administer networks across Windows-based personal computers.

WinTel PCs are notoriously difficult to administer in a network, requiring upgrades and maintenance work to be done on the units themselves. As network administrators know, compatibility issues and a lack of PC standardization have contributed to the problem.

According to Forrester Research, the cost of desktop management averages nearly $4,000 a year per PC in the United States. With the distressing ratio of support staff to computers in schools, that figure is probably even higher.

Z.E.N.works is an application that automates software distribution and lets you monitor and repair computers on the network from a central site, thereby reducing your ownership costs, said Novell spokeswoman Katrina Larson.

There are major benefits for schools, said Larson. “They can really cut their costs by leveraging expertise of the IS staff.” This means freeing up the technology director’s time for more demanding tasks by automating some processes and making it easier to do others.

First, there are the so-called “digital personas.” These amount to a cache of information about each user already stored on the central server. More about that in a moment.

Then there’s Z.E.N.works’ centralized management feature‹allowing the administrator to configure workstations (individual PCs) and to distribute software users will need from central location, reducing the amount of time staff members have to spend visiting every workstation on the network. An application icon appears automatically on the desktop of all the computers tethered to the network.

And finally, Z.E.N.works is “2000-compliant,” meaning it will recognize a date two years from now as the next century rather than 1900. The software also helps ease other difficulties posed by 2000, said Larson. It can simplify the deployment of other vendors’ year 2000 patches and updates throughout the network.

Digital persona

Systems administrators can perform “mass customization” of individual desktop units using what the company calls a “digital persona.” Network managers can easily distribute software as well as diagnose and solve software-related problems without physically visiting each networked computer or disrupting users.

Z.E.N.works is, according to Novell, the first directory-enabled desktop management tool. That means that it works with Novell Directory Services (NDS), which provides a central repository of information about the users, applications, and equipment on a network.

A “digital persona” is an individual profile that sets up and configures the computer a given user is working on. Preferences such as menu choices, desktop configuration, and printer drivers are associated with each individual’s unique user profile rather than with specific workstations.

No matter what PC a student is using, for example, any machine on the network will display the student’s personal settings‹say, eMail information in Netscape‹and other network configurations just by logging in with a password. This means you can greatly reduce the time it takes your end-users to set up desktop configurations.

Z.E.N.works’ digital persona also recognizes when the user has moved to another workstation in, for example, another building. To reduce the drain on a local or wide area network, Z.E.N. automatically adjusts to select the nearest location of a requested application. What that means is the program will find Microsoft Office or a printer device the user is calling up on a server that’s closest to the current workstation.

In addition to centralized management, Z.E.N.works lets network administrators use NDS to store a snapshot of the applications on a network user’s personal computer. If an application becomes corrupted or is accidentally deleted, Z.E.N.works will automatically restore a working version of the program. Novell calls this Z.E.N.works’ “self-healing” feature.



Z.E.N. Works



Union rails while superintendent spins out explanations

The 16 clandestine surveillance cameras set up in elementary classrooms in Palmdale, Calif., didn’t catch any thieves, but the superintendent did catch hell from the teachers’ union when it learned teachers were being secretly videotaped. A school district spokeswoman says the surreptitious taping was done by mistake and that the cameras all have been pulled from the classrooms.

Superintendent Nancy Smith allegedly made the $12,000 camera purchase without school board approval and then installed the equipment without telling teachers and parents, union officials charged.

“Originally, there were concerns about the cameras being in the classroom and why,” union President Kris Clarke told local reporters. “Then the kindergarten teachers were upset because they remembered they had changed clothes in the classrooms.”

The cameras were discovered last August, when a kindergarten teacher at Mesquite Elementary School noticed extra wires snaking up a classroom wall and disappearing under a ceiling tile. Curious, she called a colleague, who climbed a ladder and found the wires connected to a video recorder taping the activities in that room and an adjacent class.

But knowledge of the cameras didn’t become public until Feb. 3, when members of the Palmdale Elementary Teachers Association confronted Smith at a school board meeting. Armed with purchase orders that were made out for fire equipment instead of surveillance cameras, union officials and parents launched their objections.

At the board meeting, Smith defended the purchase and installation of the equipment, saying it was kept secret because district officials did not want to tip off would-be thieves.

The cameras were installed in six schools last spring and were programmed to run from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., school officials said. When school let out for summer vacation, the cameras ran for 24 hours on a continuous loop.

At the start of the current school year, maintenance workers were supposed to have reset the cameras to the original program.

“Maintenance forgot to go and change the time on the video camera at Mesquite,” said Diana Beard-Williams, a school district spokeswoman. “It never occurred to us to double-check. The camera was running 24 hours instead of only in the evening. As soon as we found out, the superintendent immediately dispatched someone there to take care of the situation.”

“The cameras were put in because of an extensive amount of theft and vandalism in the district,” Beard-Williams added. “It had nothing to do with monitoring teachers, but everything to do with protecting property.”

Still, union officials maintain the cameras shouldn’t have been in the classroom in the first place without teachers’ and parents’ knowledge. They also question why the equipment was purchased without board approval. “We have been trying to build a trusting relationship with the board, and now we feel betrayed and deceived,” Clarke said.

Trustee Sheldon Epstein agreed. “They had indicated the purchase was made because of thefts at schools and felt it was necessary, in order to apprehend those that were involved, to go through this process,” Epstein said. “We certainly do not condone that type of transaction. I, for one, am extremely upset over the manner in which it was done. I believe that to operate in such a clandestine manner betrays the trust of the board.’

The cameras have since been removed from the classrooms and are locked up in Smith’s office. No thieves were ever caught on videotape, school officials said.


‘Cookies’ can bite unwary school personnel

Calories and cholesterol aren’t the only reasons to think twice about cookies these days. Now, electronic cookies received by your web browser are threatening your students’ privacy‹and maybe your own.

In the online world, a cookie is a small piece of information saved to your hard drive the first time you visit a site that uses cookies. The cookie is passed to your hard drive by the web site’s server and is saved in a text file called “cookie.txt.” When you return to that site, the web server is able to identify you by reading information in the cookie.

Cookie files are very small, taking up no more than 4K of space. They are supported by most major browsers, including Netscape and Internet Explorer. Because cookies are passed on to you without your knowledge or consent, they have become a cause for alarm. But not to worry‹eSchool News will brief you on how to safeguard yourself and your students.

Why cookies?

The main purpose of a cookie is to identify a web site’s users and possibly prepare customized web pages for them. When you access a site that uses cookies, you may be asked to fill out a form providing information such as your name and interests. This information is packaged into a cookie and saved on your hard drive.

The next time you visit the same web site, your browser will send the cookie to the web server. The server then can use this information to present you with customized web pages. Instead of seeing just a generic welcome page, for example, you might see a welcome page with your name on it.

Cookies are also used to identify you when you want to access a site that requires registration, such as the New York Times web site. The cookie records the information you give the site when you first register and recalls it when you type in your user name and password the next time you visit. If you didn’t have a cookie, you’d have to reregister each time you tried to access the site.

So cookies were originally conceived to make it easier for you to access your favorite web sites without having to go through a lengthy process of identifying yourself each time you visit. They were also designed to create greater interactivity between a web site and its user.

What are the dangers?

Yet somewhere along the way, the original intent of cookies has been expanded. Advertisers have realized the value of information stored in cookie files as a marketing tool, and they’ve begun using cookies to target ads to you based on your profile of interests and browsing habits.

This has led to concerns about how the information you provide to a site is being used. Some sites have begun selling or trading the information stored in your cookie to advertisers or others.

The less information you provide about yourself or your students, the lower the risk of abuse. Cookies can only contain the information you provide to a web site‹they cannot read your hard drive to find out who you are or where you live.

Even so, concern is growing about how cookies can “track” your surfing habits and store this information for someone else to use.

A case now pending in a federal court might determine whether cookies stored on government (or school) computers are public records (see eSchool News, March), subject to the scrutiny of anyone who wishes to access them, or whether they are private. The plaintiff in the case, the publisher of an online newspaper, filed suit against the town of Cookeville, Tenn., claiming the town government’s refusal to hand over access to its employees’ cookie files violated his First Amendment rights. The newspaper wanted to see what sites the government employees were visiting.

The decision in this case could set a dangerous precedent. (Imagine being fired because your browser’s cookies revealed you’d visited a pornographic site‹when you were only checking whether your filtering software blocked that particular site.)

How to protect yourselves and your students

An informative site called Cookie Central gives information on how to find and edit your cookies in the latest browser versions and how to configure your browser to reject cookies. It also offers cookie demos, frequently asked questions, and information about cookie-blocking software.

The trouble with blocking cookies, though, is that they’re still useful in many ways. Mark Powers, the webmaster for NationalGeographic.com‹a popular education site‹told eSchool News that some areas of his site won’t function properly if your browser is set up to refuse cookies. This is true particularly if students are playing an interactive online game, Powers said.

NationalGeographic.com posts a privacy policy on its home page that tells visitors what type of information its cookies collect and how that information is used by the site. The policy pledges that information is never collected from children under 18 without an adult’s consent and that personal information is never given out to third parties for any reason. Information is given to advertisers only in the form of grouped statistics.

“No web site can retrieve personal information about students that they don’t type in themselves,” Powers said. “Protecting students’ privacy becomes an issue of training‹we have to teach kids not to give out information online.”

Powers suggested that you take steps to limit students’ internet use to sites that are reputable‹for example, those that post a privacy policy such as NationalGeographic.com’s or that otherwise protect their users’ privacy.

“I’m a fan of limiting sites rather than limiting the technology used to browse those sites,” said Powers.

Some software companies make cookie protection software that will allow your browser to accept or reject cookies according to your specifications. Limit Software’s Cookie Crusher is one example. You can configure it with a list of sites that should and should not be allowed to set cookies. This feature allows you and your students to view trusted sites freely, while still protecting your browsing privacy.

Cookie Central


National Geographic


The Limit Software